Dean's Newsletter

Volume 10, Issue 3

A Newsletter for Faculty & Staff in the
College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences

Volume 10, Issue 3

“Against the Wind
We were running against the wind
We were young and strong, we were running
Against the wind.”
-Bob Seger

Those of us of a certain age may remember Bob Seger’s powerful hit song “Against the Wind,” released in 1980. The lyrics reflect on the life of a young James Dean-type persona, who lived a fast life of rule-breaking and rebelling against social norms. Now, at an older, more mature age, the persona, burdened with commitments and deadlines, is well past his earlier drifter days, but he finds that he is still “running against the wind.”

I’ve been thinking about the refrain from Seger’s song for some time now as I consider the choices of various categories of CLASS students in light of the history of American undergraduate enrollments. According to the U.S. Department of Education, which tracks numbers of students by major, the number of B.A. degrees awarded in the United States grew 120% between 1970 and 2013. Among the majors that grew the most vigorously, one can cite biology and biomedical sciences, which grew 180% in that period; business, which grew 212%; psychology, which grew 199%; visual and performing arts, which grew 221%; public administration and social services, which grew 485%; health professions, which grew 618%; and communication, which grew an incredible 771%. At the same time, the number of majors in the traditional academic disciplines in the humanities and social sciences did not grow as fast as the total number of bachelor’s degrees awarded. In essence, they declined in comparison to the total population. The numbers of majors in social sciences and history, for example, grew by only 14%. Philosophy & Religious Studies did better, the number of majors growing 57%. The number of majors in foreign languages, however, grew by only an anemic 3%. Finally, the number of degrees in English language and literature actually declined by 18%. By and large, then, the trend is that college students in America, particularly those who are not going to elite institutions, are choosing practical, career-oriented degree programs over traditional academic programs, such as those in the humanities and social sciences. That, indeed, is the way the wind is blowing.

Until quite recently, enrollments in CLASS seemed not to be affected by the prevailing winds. From 2005 to 2013, the number of undergraduate students majoring in CLASS disciplines increased from 2,701 to 3,401, or +26%. Over the last two years, however, the number of students majoring in CLASS subjects has been dropping. In fall of 2015, we are down to 2565 undergraduate majors. And the enrollment has been dropping primarily in the areas one would expect given the national trends: the humanities and some of the social sciences. Graduate enrollments are also down. At the same time, enrollments in such professionally-oriented CLASS majors as social work, communication, and criminology remain strong. Moreover, among our fastest growing CLASS subject areas are fields in the arts: theatre, graphic design, music, and music therapy. Finally, I note that our production of undergraduate student credit hours for the fall actually increased by 1.8%, suggesting a significant increase in the number of general education credit hours taught rather than hours in major courses.

So in some of our majors we are indeed “running against the wind.”  Rather than just going with the wind, however, the college must chart a strategic course to make enrollment headway in the face of these winds, much like the captain of a sailing ship who uses the techniques of “tacking” and “beating” to make progress windward. We already have that course: it’s called the CLASS Strategic Plan. First of all, we must continue to support the areas that are attracting large numbers of students, and we should consider adding new degree programs in areas that promise robust enrollments, such as a new B.A. in Arabic and a new Master’s Degree in Music Therapy (Strategic Plan 4.2.2). 

Second, we must work with the new Vice President of Enrollment Services, Cindy Skaruppa, to devise new recruiting strategies for the traditional subject areas in the humanities and social sciences. Faculty in these areas are able to help Ms. Skaruppa, generating enthusiasm for their subject areas by giving public lectures. Thus, CLASS is resurrecting the list of public lecture topics for high school outreach (Strategic Plan 2.2). We must also redouble our efforts to recruit from new pools of applicants, such as international students (Strategic Plan 1.6).

Two other aspects of this particular moment in time are important. First, as students accrue more and more college debt, the anxieties about being able to pay off that debt by means of a good post-graduate job grow larger. That’s why CLASS cannot ignore the question of job-readiness. But, second, we must always remember that in the current economy the job market is always changing. Peter Cappelli, a professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote a book entitled Will College Pay Off?, and he gave a lecture on this topic to the City Club. There he argued strongly against narrow, job-related degrees that are hastily assembled to meet current job openings. Preparing oneself narrowly for today’s jobs may be self-defeating because those jobs may no longer be available in five or six years. What is needed, argues Dr. Cappelli, is an education in broad transferrable skills, which give one the basis for success in whatever new jobs are created in the future. We do this in CLASS particularly well. However, faculty in the traditional humanities and social sciences do not always articulate these transferrable skills to students, and so we must do a better job in this area (Strategic Plan 1.2). As a college, we will also articulate these transferrable skills and showcase our most successful alumni by means of our new Liberal Arts Edge Lounge (Strategic Plan, 2.1), set to open in January 2016. This space will be a great tool to help us win back many of the growing pool of the officially undecided students who are entering CSU.

In addition, we must give all CLASS students the extra edge that they need to find a place in the economy by promoting paid internships (Strategic Plan 1.1). Some of our programs, like Social Work, already give their students full access to hands on workplace experiences. Others will have to start from scratch. We made a good beginning last summer when, working with Career Services, CSU placed 41 CLASS majors in paid internships. Adding significantly more paid internships will demand new resources, and we will do our best to get the resources we need.

Finally, anything we can do to increase student retention will automatically help us increase the number of our majors. Hence, all of our efforts at promoting the success of CLASS students, such as increasing the quality of advising, will help us make progress against prevailing enrollment trends (Strategic Plan 1.4-5).

Running against the wind is tough. However, CLASS is young and strong, and we will make headway if we just follow our plan.

Best wishes,