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Mendoza enrollment cap consequences

| Friday, April 25, 2014

In late February, the University announced that beginning with the class of 2018, enrollment in the Mendoza College of Business would be capped at 550 students per class. This is not all that surprising. Mendoza already does not accept sophomore transfer students, and Wharton School (UPenn), Ross (Michigan), and Kelley (Indiana University) already have various caps or required applications for prospective students. The business school is busting at the seams, and the Administration is acting accordingly.

One thing the Administration has unsurprisingly glossed over ⎯ or only vaguely alluded to ⎯ in publicizing the move is the impact it stands to have on the College of Arts & Letters. While touting the advantages of an enrollment cap ⎯ maintaining smaller class sizes and keeping business classes open to non-business majors ⎯ the more quietly stated motive almost certainly derives from the slow-drip of Arts & Letters students into Mendoza. Paraphrasing Dean of First Year of Studies Hugh Page, The Observer wrote “the admissions office and the First Year of Studies are working to provide more information to high school students and freshmen on the different paths to a career in business besides a business major.”

Major enrollment statistics are available online through the Office of Institutional Research to anybody with a Notre Dame netID. As spreadsheets go, they’re something to see. While the total number of Notre Dame undergraduates has essentially held constant over the past 10 years, the number of undergraduates enrolled in Arts & Letters has plummeted. Political science, once the most popular undergraduate major with 684 enrollees, has lost 38 percent of its students since the spring of 2004. Likewise, the history department has dropped from 324 to 196 undergraduate majors, and English has fallen from 424 to 239. Over the same period, the number of finance majors has climbed from 368 to 482 (25 percent). It is now the most popular major at Notre Dame.

With the recession and increasing market demand for STEM majors, the loss is not surprising, and University officials like associate vice president of admissions Don Bishop have said as much. But the numbers and the move to cap Mendoza’s enrollment are most indicative of the sad fact that Arts & Letters has so far failed to make its case that the degrees it confers are valuable, both in terms of post-graduate employment prospects and the intrinsic value a liberal education carries.
Arts & Letters has to sell prospective students on the following value proposition: A liberal arts education, if not more beneficial than a business degree for one’s post-baccalaureate employment prospects, will at least not hurt them. And, to the extent that a liberal arts degree does not directly translate to immediate and lucrative private-sector employment, you will at least realize benefits of critical thinking and reflection you could not hone as sharply elsewhere.

In short, if you don’t land the finance job because you chose philosophy, you’ll at least be a better person.

I subscribe to this idea wholeheartedly, but there are several structural and rhetorical barriers to making this sale. The first is best summed up by my friend Andrew: “If you’re gonna pay $60,000 a year for this, you better expect a job at the other end.” The job market today compared to the one our parents faced is horrid, and the promise of thinking, speaking and writing more lucidly is poor consolation if your degree doesn’t swiftly punch your ticket to gainful employment. The unemployment rate of Arts & Letters students six months after graduation is only three percent ⎯ compared to one percent in Mendoza ⎯ but the percentage of students opting for law school, grad school and service (all outstanding options) gives pause to parents who write the tuition checks.

Second, Mendoza offers a package that is nothing short of seductive to a freshman who just pulled their nose out of the US News & World Report rankings. Bloomberg Businessweek has reminded Mendoza students and faculty every spring for the past five years that they are the number-one undergrad B-school in the country. Graduate with a 3.8 from Mendoza, and a top investment bank will hire you. Against that, Arts & Letters appears to offer relative uncertainty and insecurity. That’s certainly how it looked to me two years ago as a freshman, even as I took the plunge into the humanities and social sciences.

Capping Mendoza may slow the flow of would-be history majors into accountancy, but it will simultaneously add another layer of exclusivity and cachet to the Notre Dame business major, and thus another hurdle for Arts & Letters in selling first-year students on the liberal arts. First-year students will ask how good Arts & Letters could actually be if it doesn’t actively try to weed freshmen out with an application process or slate of backbreaking classes like Orgo and Transport I. While science and engineering kids say, “I survived,” and business kids say, “I got in,” us Arts & Letters folks will have to find our security elsewhere.

On balance, capping Mendoza enrollment seems like the right, if inevitable, decision. Arts & Letters will need to accompany it with a stellar recruiting effort, or its would-be students will continue looking toward Mendoza, now more exclusive, chic and alluring than ever.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Caton

Alex is a junior political science major living in the caves and ditches of St. Edward's Hall. He has written for the Viewpoint section since spring 2013

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