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The Dartmouth
June 17, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Shifts in enrollment may follow job stress, faculty say

Data show declining interest in the humanities since 2008.
Data show declining interest in the humanities since 2008.

Around 650 fewer students took English courses in 2013 than in 2001, while around 880 more took an engineering class.

Between 2001 and 2013, English, religion, history and art history have seen significant decreases in enrollment while the engineering, physics and economics departments experienced growth, according to office of the registrar data compiled by Jason Goodman ’12.

But an Oct. 2013 New York Times article suggests that this trend is not unique to Dartmouth. Both Stanford and Harvard Universities have seen a sharp decline in humanities majors, with Harvard experiencing a 20 percent decrease in humanities majors over the last decade. There are currently around half as many humanities majors at undergraduate institutions nationwide than there were in 1970, the New York Times reported.

Dartmouth faculty members interviewed said the changing economy and concerns about post-graduation employment likely influenced the shift.

“For better or worse, it seems like people are majoring in things that are closer to what they project to be their initial occupation,” economics professor Bruce Sacerdote said.

Dean of the faculty Michael Mastanduno said that though financial concerns and job prospects likely factor into students’ decisions, these worries are often unfounded.

“A truly high quality liberal arts education that we provide here suggests that you are going to be likely to do very well regardless of which particular field you major in,” he said.

French and comparative literature professor Andrea Tarnowski, who leads the Humanities 1 and 2 program, said she believes students’ emphasis on “strict and manifest measurability of outcomes” has increased. Tarnowski said she credits an increased emphasis on STEM courses — fueled by the assumption that the U.S. is lagging in the fields of engineering and the sciences — for the enrollment decline.

Tarnowski said that both students and parents tend to see a need for translating college courses into something perceived as marketable.

“If parents say, ‘What will you be able to do when you leave college?’ it is much easier to say, ‘I will be able to use these three computer programs,’ and prove that, then to say ‘I will be able to give an excellent oral presentation’ or ‘I will be able to analyze a text with great acuity and refinement,’ Tarnowski said.

Timothy Hannan '18 said he is taking Economics 1to learn how markets work and tobuild a knowledge base for a range of career paths.

Goodman, who is pursuing a master’s degree in data science at the University of California at Berkeley, said he personally values the skills gained through humanities courses.

“Having technical skills is an important part of any data-related job, but being able to ask the right questions and challenge assumptions and all the things that the liberal arts teach you to do are arguably even more important than the technical skills,” he said. “I think that it’s really important to continue to make the case that the humanities are not just fun to study, but that they have a pragmatism, even if its not as completely obvious as macroeconomics.”

Humanities 1 student Claire Alcus ’18 said that studying the Western canon has formative implications extending far beyond the classroom.

“The humanities is the discipline that asks the big questions,” she said, gesturing to her heavily annotated copy of Dante’s “Inferno.” “I think the reason we study them is not only for their face value, but to appreciate the continuity of the human spirit despite the differing historical and cultural influences of the works’ times.”

This summer, applications for the Humanities 1-2 class sequence skyrocketed, gathering 135 applications for 48 spots.

Increased enrollment in economics and science courses has also presented these departments with additional challenges, such as growing the departments efficiently and making appropriate use of the available resources, Sacerdote said.

The Board of Trustees, College President Phil Hanlon, associate dean for the social sciences Nancy Marion and Mastanduno closely monitor and evaluate these trends in enrollment to authorize new hiring, Sacerdote said.

In 1998, Dartmouth's economics department had fewer than 20 regular faculty members. Today, that number has risen to 32.

While the number of sections for certain economics classes offered has increased, Sacerdote said that class sizes have remained relatively constant since he arrived at Dartmouth in 1998.

Mastanduno said he sees the enrollment shift as a pivotal moment in the College’s history, and consequently a time to reaffirm Dartmouth’s identity as an institution committed to the liberal arts.

“I think that we can be the champions of a great liberal arts education, and I think that is such a valuable commodity in our society and culture today,” Mastanduno said. “It’s something for which we should be going on the offensive, if you will, and championing, instead of something that we should be feeling defensive about.”