Majors see shifts in popularity over time

by Lex Kang | 10/26/18 2:15am

As a liberal arts college, Dartmouth offers its students many options to specialize their academic goals according to their needs and interests. Despite the flexibility the College offers, the distribution of majors is far from even. According to statistics provided by the Office of Institutional Research, the two most popular majors, economics and government, graduated 197 and 151 majors respectively for the Class of 2018. The third most popular major was computer science, which graduated 95 majors. The departments with the fewest majors were ancient history and astronomy, both with only one graduating student with a degree from the department. The numbers help shed light on how the popularities of varying departments have ebbed and flowed over the years, and how the curriculum or the faculty of a department influences its popularity.

The first significant trend has been the decreasing popularity of the arts and the humanities. Though it may have been previously considered one of the quintessential majors of higher education, the English major has seen a fall in graduating majors. The department had 61 graduating majors in 2014 and only 39 in 2018. However, English department chair and professor Andrew McCann noted that the statistics do not tell the full story. 

“There’s been a decline in the number of students majoring in humanities,” McCann said. “But that doesn’t mean that our enrollments have dropped; there are still large numbers of students taking classes in English and creative writing.” 

McCann added that he has also noticed a substantial number of students interested in some of the “robust areas” of the English major. 

“Students have seemed very interested in American literature, and creative writing is a very popular set of courses for students at Dartmouth,” McCann said. 

Furthermore, McCann said his belief in the strength of the English department has not been lessened by the decreasing number of majors. He added that the flexibility of the English major allows it to meet student needs and makes it an attractive choice. 

However, McCann noted that the English department does recognize the decrease in majors and hopes to raise that number. He said that the English department simplified the process of obtaining an English degree by “[dropping] the requirement to have a concentration” and introducing new courses that “put an older media form into dialogue with a contemporary medium” to pique student interest, such as English 52.18, “Netflix and The Victorian Serial Novel.” 

Though the social sciences division has also seen a general decrease in popularity, each department showed varied results. While neuroscience and psychology majors fell by roughly 25 percent from the Class of 2014 to the Class of 2018, both economics and government are steadily the top two most popular majors. According to history department chair and professor Robert Bonner, the history department is also seeing a decrease in majors.

“We, I think, are smaller than we were maybe even five years ago,” Bonner said. “Certainly smaller than we were twenty years ago when we were the biggest major at the college … We once had 150 majors graduating every year.” 

Bonner added that with the decrease in standalone majors, the history department experienced an increased number of double and modified majors, indicating a high number of students taking advantage of the multiple ways the history department allows their major to be modified. 

Regarding the decrease in majors, Bonner said that the national trend of history decreasing in popularity as an academic discipline, particularly at “less selective schools” like “big state schools,” indicated that there is little chance of history returning to its former level of popularity. Despite the prospects, Bonner added that he “really [resists] thinking that [the decrease is] a loss,” but rather an opportunity to “do more with our majors.” Rather than requiring one seminar with 16 people, the history department has switched to requiring two 12 person seminars, Bonner said. 

Even so, Bonner said that the history department is also in the process of trying to attract more students to the major. According to Bonner, like the English department, the history department also removed the concentration requirement, and the department is currently undergoing a regularly scheduled external review to find further ways to “recast the major.” The history department is also attempting to introduce courses that are focused on specific themes, such as the history of medicine or the history of sexuality, Bonner said. He added that he hopes such methods will attract a wide variety of students to “maybe no major, but at least to come to our classes” because “[history is] so important for the world we live in now and maybe increasingly so.” 

“What we’re bringing to the table as people who are training your generation to think about problem solving … is sort of a guilty conscience of assuming any evidence is transparent,” Bonner said. 

Naturally, the perspective of a highly and consistently popular department is different. Economics department chair and professor Nina Pavcnik attributes the popularity of the major to the association many students make between an economics degree and lucrative career.

“I also hope [that] part of the reason why [economics] is a popular major is because we tried to do a good job teaching students,” Pavcnik said. “What we teach in economics are really liberal arts tools … and some of that could be applied to finance, but you can also use the tools that economists use to study [other things, like] education.” 

As a result of its overwhelming popularity, Pavcnik added that the economics faculty had to expand from 21 to 29 members in the past twenty years, along with adding new classes and even a new concentration field, macroeconomics. Additionally, she noted that managing a highly coveted department posed some challenges, such as having to find ways to have multiple course offerings and stay competitive to retain professors. 

The popularity of the major has not deterred the department from wanting to expand its course offerings. 

“We would love to teach an environmental economics course [and] a behavioral economics course,” Pavcnik said. “Those would be nice additions.” 

 Majors such as engineering, computer science and quantitative social science have also been growing rapidly in recent years. QSS department chair and professor Michael Herron noted that though the department, which had its first two graduates in 2016, is very new, the major shows promising signs of growth. 

“Last year we graduated thirteen,” Herron said. “Prior to that it was two. This year, I believe we’re on target to [graduate] around 30 [students].” 

Herron said that the QSS curriculum teaches “a combination of data analytic skills [and] social science,” a skillset necessary to “study the world.” This highly applicative nature of the discipline led the department to “emphasize research” and require “all fourth years to write projects.” He added that he believed the increasing interest in the department is reflective of “the way a lot of the world operates.” 

“I suspect that on campus, the interest in this sort of way of thinking will grow,” Herron said. “Whether that translates into numbers [of majors], harder [to say].” 

According to Herron, the QSS department faces unique challenges as a new program. The department is trying to figure out where it fits in the institution, the same struggle many interdisciplinary programs face at their inception, Herron said. Herron added that there is still some confusion about what the program itself is. 

“One question [asked] is: what does this major mean in the sense of being on a transcript?” Herron said. “What [QSS major alumni] tell me is that when they’re engaging with people outside of Dartmouth, it’s not immediately obvious [to them], [since] it’s not an obvious discipline name.” 

Another challenge is “staying on top of” new quantitative techniques, which “move quickly,” Herron said. He added that to address the challenge of a rapidly changing discipline, many of the classes are taught by post-doctorate students. 

Despite the challenges, Herron said that the department is continuing to set goals for itself to continue expanding and improving. An external committee is currently evaluating the program and the department plans on developing a course that all majors take, Herron said. 

On the student side of the situation, major selection, and thus, major popularity, is dependent on factors beyond the efforts of faculty. According to an email statement from assistant dean of faculty for pre-major advising Cecilia Gaposchkin, the reasons students have for selecting majors are highly individualized. 

“If there are about 1200 students in the sophomore class this year, I bet there will be about 1200 different reasons for choosing a course of study.” Gaposchkin said. “Parents, parental expectations and parental advice often play an important role, as do the advice and experience of peers or recent graduates.” 

Gaposchkin added that incoming students’ potential major selections change drastically due to “shifting intellectual development and exploration” as their Dartmouth career progresses. Upon arrival to the College, Gaposchkin said engineering, economics, biology, computer science and traditional disciplines like history or English are popular with matriculating students, but soon diverge into fields they didn’t have access to before like sociology, geography or women’s, gender and sexuality studies. Computer science and environmental studies have also seen notable growth, Gaposchkin said. 

According to Gaposchkin, individual faculty, departments and the College as a whole are always factoring size and popularity of subject matter for institutional priorities. However, Gaposchkin strongly noted that this does not mean smaller departments are neglected. 

“The College is also committed to breadth and coverage, so [it] makes sure we also have faculty availability in subject matters that are of great important to a fewer number of students.”

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