What is driving the drop in liberal arts enrollments?

'A college education really is a preparation for life, it's not training for the first job you get'

Arts and sciences colleges nationwide are losing students as more freshmen arrive with college credit and lean toward professional schools, Kellie Woodhouse reports for Inside Higher Ed.

Enrollments in English and History departments are down nationally, says Tim Johnston, president of the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS).

"There is no one reason why this is happening. As usual, it's complicated," says Larry Singell, dean of Indiana University (IU) at Bloomington's College of Arts and Sciences. "This is not something that's going to be different next year."

While schools may meet short-term budget deficits by limiting raises or reducing staff numbers, a long-term solution is needed, writes Woodhouse.

What is causing the drop?

Experts conclude there are several key drivers of the declining enrollment in liberal arts programs.

1. Fewer students need to complete general requirements.

For a long time, the "bread and butter" of arts and sciences colleges has been general education courses that students from all majors need to take, writes Woodhouse. But increasingly, first-year students have already knocked out mandatory credits by the time they enroll.

At Ohio State University (Ohio State), 20% of students arrive with a full year's worth of credits, either from AP tests or community college courses. In the past five years, the College of Arts and Sciences credit hour enrollment fell 11%.

At IU Bloomington, 21,700 students have arrived with a total 166,700 credit hours—80% of which were earned via high school programs—since 2013.

This has been a concern for some critics of President Obama's America's College Promise, the president's proposal to offer free community college tuition for many students.

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2. Students are migrating to professional schools.

The growing national focus on the ROI of a college education—and specifically, whether studying STEM leads to high-paying jobs—may be driving some students away from liberal arts programs.

Additionally, institutions now admit more international students—who pay higher tuition and tend to choose professional colleges

"Colleges of arts and sciences, including our own, haven't done a good job about helping students and parents understand that if you take a slightly longer look, students in arts and humanities do just as well [as ones in professional schools]," says Jean Robinson, the assistant dean at IU Bloomington.

In an attempt to recapture students, IU Bloomington now offers majors that combine humanities and social sciences, as well as by building up career preparation programs. Ohio State's College of Arts of Sciences, meanwhile, is adding to its internal STEM programs.

"A college education really is a preparation for life, it's not training for the first job you get," says Johnston.

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2. Certain budget models may exacerbate disparities between colleges.

IU and Ohio State both run on responsibility-centered management (RCM) budget models, which require colleges to generate revenue to cover all of their own expenses. This means there is no cushion to protect the schools from falling credit hour revenue.

However, departments within colleges may subsidize each other. For example, IU Bloomington's strong economics program funds smaller departments.

Additional factors

At Ohio State, some faculty members say they believe the administration is hurting the college of arts and sciences.

"University policies are acting against the arts and humanities," says Harvey Graff, an English professor and the literacy studies program director.

He says the school focuses on admitting and providing financial aid to out-of-state students and those with interest in the popular colleges. In the last six years, applications to the Colleges of Arts and Sciences have doubled but enrollment has remained about flat (Woodhouse, Inside Higher Ed, 6/4).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.


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