What Colleges Majors Are On The Decline?

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As colleges continue to face enrollment declines and financial stress, many are turning to cutting less-popular majors. The humanities and social sciences face the greatest threat from the COVID-19 pandemic, but liberal arts have also struggled to compete with more STEM-focused degrees.

Physics, engineering, and fields with similar demographic profiles have also felt the pinch in the post-COVID-19 downturn. 

English & Liberal Arts Majors Hit Hardest

According to The New Yorker, from 2012 to the pandemic's start, the number of English majors on campus at Arizona State University fell from nine hundred and fifty-three to five hundred and seventy-eight. 

And over the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third. Humanities enrollment in the United States has declined overall by 17%. Therefore, many small colleges are starting to eliminate English majors altogether. 

Last month, Lasell University eliminated five liberal arts majors, including history, modern languages, philosophy, and literature. This move led to four faculty and 12 staff position layoffs. Simmons University is also considering cutting five to seven liberal arts departments

And just last week, administrators at West Virginia University announced the elimination of 32 (9%) of the majors, along with a wide-ranging reduction in faculty to address a $45 million budget shortfall. Some targeted majors include the fine arts schools and eight College of Arts and Science departments, including English, world languages, and women’s studies. 

But English departments nationwide are also testing new approaches to win devotees, including adding courses that students find particularly appealing, such as creative writing and film. 

And donors are also making major investments in this mission; the Modern Language Association recently received a $1.5 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant for recruiting and retaining students into college humanities programs. 

It’s Not Just Humanities & Liberal Arts Under Threat

Physics, a relatively expensive program to operate and a major that enrolls modest numbers of students, is one of many disciplines that has fallen under increasing pressure in recent years as colleges deal with decreased public funding, enrollment declines, and demographic shifts.

Notably, over half of physics departments are experiencing “some level of threat to their existence.” 

And as tuition costs have far outpaced wage growth, many people aren’t sure college is worth it, even though STEM degrees are among the most profitable. And although physics is in STEM, it is not as clearly linked to a job as computer science or engineering. 

Therefore, colleges must do a better job of clearly connecting physics to diverse and well-paying career paths. “Students need to know that the debt they take on during undergrad has a hope of being paid off in a reasonable timeframe and that it won’t lower their quality of life over a long time period,” said Ben Zwickl, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Rochester Institute of Technology.

As colleges and universities struggle with budget shortfalls and lower enrollment rates, it’s growing more and more imperative that they are able to recruit and retain the right students – those who are not only qualified for enrollment, but who are most likely to be successful long term. 

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The humanities and social sciences face the most significant threat, while physics, engineering, and similar fields have also felt the pinch post-COVID-19.


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