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Arts and Letters sees decline in enrollment

John Cameron | Thursday, September 1, 2011

The College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame has seen the greatest decline in enrollment over the past few years as students choose to pursue business over the liberal arts, Dean of the College John McGreevy said.

While the decline has been gradual, McGreevy said the trend is concerning.

“Last year’s enrollment was not that different [from this year’s], but we are worried about the decline in enrollment in Arts and Letters, and to a lesser degree in sciences, and the sharp increase in business,” McGreevy said. “It’s really [the Mendoza College of] Business where the growth is.”

In 2008, 35 percent of students declared a major in Arts and Letters at the end of their first year, while 29 percent chose to enter Mendoza. By 2010, the portion of students choosing liberal arts majors had declined to 27 percent, and the fraction electing business had risen to 34 percent, according to a First Year of Studies report.

McGreevy attributed the trend to students’ fears about the job market and misplaced concerns about the suitability of a liberal arts major compared to the necessity of a business degree.

“It’s as complex as the economic crisis and job anxiety, Mendoza’s No. 1 ranking and the structural issue where students from business can double major in Arts and Letters but not the other way around,” he said.

Students who enroll in the Mendoza College of Business have the option of adding a second major in the College of Arts and Letters, while students whose primary major is in the College of Arts and Letters are not able to add a supplementary major in business, he said.

McGreevy said the perceived limitations on an Arts and Letters graduate are unfounded as worried students are misled into pursuing majors deemed more practical.

“The data on Arts and Letters students getting jobs is really encouraging,” he said. “Unemployment isn’t any different between students in Arts and Letters and business.”

McGreevy dismissed the notion that business majors have more professional flexibility than Arts and Letters students.

“People think if they major in English, for example, they won’t find a good job, but our English majors get all types of different jobs,” he said. “If you want to go to professional or graduate school, we have a lot of people doing that. For students looking into full-time service, we have a lot of students doing that. Or those going into the paid labor force, we have a lot of students doing that too.”

McGreevy said he hoped more students caught up in the trend toward business-oriented areas of study would see economics as a viable option.

“One thing we’re pushing is economics, which is our fastest growing major,” he said. “I think it’s a fantastic major, it’s really rigorous.”

As Notre Dame is one of only a few prestigious universities offering an undergraduate business program, McGreevy said the Ivy League gives proof to the successes of liberal arts majors.

“Most places don’t actually have undergraduate business. Look at Harvard, Yale or Princeton,” he said. “The history and political science and classics majors still all do well.”

McGreevy said he worries students who prioritize what they think will benefit their careers, rather than their minds, may regret it later.

“I get really sad when I hear someone 20 years out of college say they wish they had studied something else,” he said. “You only get one chance at college.”

McGreevy said any Notre Dame student graduates with the skills necessary to achieve professionally.

“The most important piece of advice is to study what you love, what will make you work hard,” he said. “Our students are competitive with any others in the country.”