Declining enrollment in arts and humanities raises concerns in CLA

Following national trends, enrollment in arts and humanities majors has decreased in recent years.

Helen Sabrowsky

In line with national trends, the University of Minnesota’s arts and humanities majors have seen falling enrollment rates, leading the school to explore possible solutions.

Nationally, schools are discontinuing programs and struggling to find ways to maintain funding in response to the trend, and some say this reflects a change in attitudes toward the value of these majors.

At the University, declining enrollment and state funding have dealt dual blows to the College of Liberal Arts.

“There is a completely erroneous assumption that the major you have dictates the job you’ll get, and that is a fundamentally flawed idea,” said Jane Blocker, the College of Liberal Arts’ Associate Dean for Arts and Humanities. “Only about 50 percent of any undergraduates end up being employed in a field directly related to their major.”

She said some departments have seen declining enrollment since the Great Recession in 2008. 

Nationally, nearly all disciplines in the humanities saw a drop in the number of degrees awarded from 2012, the recent enrollment peak, to 2015, according to research from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Blocker said since the ’80s, arts and humanities have seen federal funding cuts, while sciences have not. She said the cuts point to a larger conversation surrounding the value of liberal arts degrees compared to STEM fields at all levels of schooling.

“There are various ways to make up for a lack in public funding, one of them is grant funding,” Blocker said. “But if the major grant funders are in sciences, it’s harder for the arts and humanities to compete with that.”

However, for some students, job placement is not a concern. Sam Gavin, a sophomore minoring in Japanese, said he chose to study the language because he thought that it was fun and that it complimented his computer science major. 

Job placement didn’t influence his decision, Gavin said. 

The University of St. Thomas has noticed similar decreases in enrollments in their Arts and Humanities programs, said Paola Ehrmantraut, a Spanish associate professor at St. Thomas. Over the past ten years, enrollment in language majors at St. Thomas have dropped by almost 50 percent, she said. 

“There is increased anxiety in job placement after graduation, which is heightened by the increasing cost of tuition,” Ehrmantraut said. 

Declining enrollment rates in arts and humanities majors is raising concern within CLA, which receives about 70 percent of their funding through student enrollment and tuition, Blocker said. National trends and cutbacks to programs amplify these concerns, like at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, Blocker said. 

The University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point announced last month that it plans to discontinue a number of arts and humanities majors to address fiscal challenges, including English, history and political science.

At the University of Minnesota, those majors have also seen declines in degrees awarded over the last five years – 32 percent in English, 27 percent in history and 8 percent in political science.

To buck this trend, the University is trying to predict what future students will be interested in and what they will need to succeed in these majors, Blocker said. The CLA will continue to push its Undergraduate Career Readiness initiative, which aims to help students identify marketable skills they learn in each class, she said.

In the future, Ehrmantraut said Universities may need to change requirements to make majors more career-marketable. 

Despite what the numbers say, Ehrmantraut hasn’t noticed many changes within the classroom. 

“The numbers would paint a dull picture, but from the ground it looks a lot different,” Ehrmantraut said. “The numbers don’t reflect the energy of the students in these courses.”