When colleges switch from the liberal arts to STEM

Some of us have been tracking the recent crisis in American small colleges.  Many of those campuses face declining enrollment because of several factors, including demographic changes and reputational decline. How a small institution respond to and survive these challenges – that has been a strategic question of enormous import to such schools, as well as to all of American higher education.

One strategic response is to downplay the humanities and liberal arts approach in favor of increasing support to STEM and professional fields.  This week has seen several examples, chronicled in the Boston Globe, which I offer here as datapoints for a rising trend.

Merrimack CollegeMerrimack College (3,200 undergrads) is now “stressing health sciences, business, and engineering over humanities…  shifting from the basic liberal arts track to one geared toward degrees with clearer job prospects in the current economy.”

The results?  Students followed closely:

In 2016, more than 30 percent of students graduated with business degrees and about 20 percent finished school with degrees in health services, sciences, and civil engineering. Meanwhile, the popularity of English and general liberal arts degrees has fallen. In 2015, 10 out of 654 students graduated with English degrees, down from 19 just five years before. Even fewer finished with liberal arts degrees: six students, down from 19 in 2010.

Data analytics plays a role:

The effort has become so sophisticated that the college uses an outside consultant and computer algorithms to dole out financial aid, ensuring that students who visit often and want to come to the school get more money, instead of simply offering the biggest scholarships to students with the best grades who are weighing several options.

As does closer relationships with businesses: “Merrimack has worked to convince families that it’s money well-spent, highlighting partnerships with businesses, such as Raytheon Co. and New Balance, where students work and do internships.”

Put another way,

Enrollment at the college has been on the rise for the past five years — climbing by more than 60 percent from about 2,300 students in 2011 to 3,780 students last year — and it plans to welcome its second-largest freshmen class this fall.

That’s “growing enrollment by double digits for several years”, according to “Pranav Sharma, an analyst for Moody’s Investors Services.”  How many schools can claim such a result?

Ninety miles away another campus is implementing a similar strategy:

Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire is eliminating its English and philosophy majors this year in favor of programs such as nursing, business, and sports management.

A critical column in the Hartford Courant expands on this development:

To improve its fiscal situation, Colby-Sawyer hired a consultant to help tweak the school’s business model. The resulting four-point plan recommended that the school stay in place (bucolic setting); target the same market (the broad middle); deliver the same basic product (small classes taught by teaching professors); and change the curriculum from traditional to pragmatic. This plan is comparable to a restaurant choosing to remain in the same location; target the same spenders; feature excellent service and shift the menu from what people are not buying to what people are buying. (emphases added)

Americans have argued about how pragmatic post-secondary education should be since we first built campuses.  This isn’t new.  But the strategic switch away from the humanities and towards health care/STEM is one we need to watch carefully.

How widespread is this strategy?  And how will it rewrite American higher ed?  How many schools are making the opposite moves?

Beyond these two New England examples, I’d like to get better metrics nationwide.  We already have numbers showing the humanities in decline in terms of undergrad majors, and health (including allied health) burgeoning.  We should have more stats on the number of faculty in these departments, number of courses taught, etc.

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3 Responses to When colleges switch from the liberal arts to STEM

  1. actualham says:

    I just wonder about “pragmatism.” What is the evidence that in the long run students do better with job training pathways that are directly tied to current markets? Tressie McMillan Cottom has me very, very skeptical.

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  2. Mark Rush says:

    Is it simply a case of tying education “to current markets”? I think it is broader.

    “Liberal Education” is distinct from the “liberal arts.” If we believe in the former, then a business or engineering major with coursework in history, English, philosophy, or political science ought to be as well educated/prepared for the world as the philosophy major with coursework in engineering, the political science major with coursework in business, etc.

    Whether we like it or not, students and their families are now justifiably discriminating consumers. The debt burden on students is astonishing and, I’d argue, unethical. Bryan has documented this numerous times so I will not do so. As well, the US and global economy have changed and, as a result, the nature and supply of jobs has changed. If universities are to create citizens prepared to live and lead in a more globalized world–and do so in a manner that does not leave student with what amounts to suicidal debt burdens–then there is a lot to be said (ethically and practically) to adapting curricula to prepare students for that world.

    I would guess that departments and programs have expanded and contracted within universities throughout the last 100 years. Environmental Science, Women’s and Gender Studies, Neuroscience, etc. have all been created in recent memory. Why can it not be the case that some departments may need to be shrunk or merged? Are universities bound only to create new programs and departments in a positive sum manner? Or might it be necessary to shrink and reassemble as well?

    What is important to note in this debate, IMHO, is that we cannot be guided by the behavior of elite institutions that serve an increasingly small percentage of the college population. Big schools, community colleges, state schools, etc. serve the majority of the student population, a majority of which hails from the other 99%. If rendering liberal education a bit more pragmatic serves their needs, how can we ethically choose not to make such adjustments?

    Liberal ed is and has been cast as being tied intimately to liberal democracy. If liberal ed is crafted only for the interests of the elite, it then betrays those liberal democratic values. There is nothing wrong with mixing more pragmatism in the liberal education formula. As a reference, I offer Bill Durden and his reliance on Benjamin Rush for a thoughtful discussion of the role of higher ed and, specifically, liberal education: https://www.naicu.edu/news-events/presidential-opinion/2007/the-liberal-arts-as-a-bulwark-of-business-educatio?page=3

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