Microblog 4


Just an addendum to my last post on declining humanities majors. Thinking of this trend in terms of student preferences (however formed) prevents us from thinking about which students are enrolling. That is to say, selective colleges and universities make choices about which students to admit, and there is a “political economy of enrollment”: since students are accounted sources of revenue, how many of them there are and where they go is crucial to the distribution of resources in the university. This distribution is of course not left entirely up to students themselves.

At Rutgers, for example, the administration can make choices not only about the total size of the undergraduate body (which it is continuously increasing—without of course increasing the size of the tenured and tenure track faculty to teach the new students), but also about the distribution of students across the schools. Since Rutgers charges more tuition at its engineering and business schools, there is an economic reason to shift the balance of undergraduates away from arts and sciences (and a fortiori humanities) and towards these other divisions, quite apart from all the other cultural and political reasons university management might prefer to shift resources that way. And in fact such a shift has happened: the New Brunswick School of Arts and Sciences, though still the largest-enrolling unit, has slightly decreased its enrollment over the last four years, while the Rutgers Business School has increased its student body size rapidly (from 2964 students in 2014 to 4427 students in 2018), and the School of Engineering has added students too. Credit where credit’s due: the university’s office of institutional research has made this information nicely available through a Tableau web version of the university online factbook. In fact I can even embed it right here, though it gets a little squished, so scroll the graphic to the right for 2018 figures:

Furthermore, Rutgers recently created an Honors College (“our goal: to prepare you for a career with purpose”). I don’t have any facts to hand on the enrollment consequences of this institutional change, but it’s easy to imagine that the extra support, including scholarships, given to students who participate in a program with a clear preprofessional focus—there is a required first-year mission course on becoming “innovation citizens”—also draws those students away from the humanities and indeed all the liberal arts. Probably the importance of test scores in honors admissions also adjusts this balance towards students with a scientific or technical orientation. And of course it enhances the prestige of “entrepreneurship” and “innovation” and all that other garbage at the expense of all the things that actually make institutions devoted to research and teaching worth having. This is not to say anything against individual honors college students; those I have taught have been wonderful, and in any case they make their decisions in circumstances not of their own choosing. Which is just the point.

The discipline-level political economy of enrollment at Rutgers probably doesn’t generalize to all of U.S. higher education, since the liberal-arts-oriented students who don’t come to Rutgers will very likely enroll somewhere else. And the fact that humanities BAs are declining in almost every segment of the higher education system means that the specific transformations of the public university exemplified by Rutgers are not on the right scale to explain the national trend. On the other hand, this local example does illustrate that the nature of the student body for the human sciences (or the reading-writing-disciplines, or whatever you want to call them) is determined by managerial decisions as well as student choices. If faculty in those fields want to stop losing majors, they should ask themselves whether the group of potential majors has been shrinking too, and why.