To me it always seems like the merit of a liberal arts degree is always in question. That partly comes from being friends with extraordinarily smart STEM-oriented friends who leave me wondering what skills a person with a degree in history or the classics could wield that are equal to their computer and math skills. But it also partly comes from news such as what the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) recently announced.
The university recently said that it will be eliminating some long-standing liberal arts degrees, including some in history, French and German, in favor of a more pre-professional approach to education. This announcement came as the result of a decline in student enrollment and the bleak prospect of the school receiving any increase in state funds in the coming years.
When I first read about this announcement, I wasn’t entirely surprised that the school decided to cut the liberal arts majors over STEM related majors but was sort of frustrated about it. On one hand I realized that most people would argue that STEM majors provide an easier transition into the working world from college, but on the other hand that unspoken reinforcement that history and language majors aren’t worth the effort to teach didn’t resonate well with me. This idea that STEM classes are simply more practical classes to take and liberal arts classes such as history, philosophy and language courses are not worth the time and money to take takes away what I believe is one of the more important aspects of college: to take classes outside your comfort zone and try taking classes in all sorts of disciplines to find what you are truly interested in.
I realize that this is easier said than done as many students have a goal to reach in their four years, plan out all of their courses for each quarter and think that they don’t have the space to fit in a class just “for fun.” Despite that, I still retain the belief that one of the great things about college is that there is so much to find out about what you’re interested in and what you want to do after your four years. Eliminating majors like history and languages is telling students that those areas aren’t important enough to warrant four years of studying and slowly nudging them towards other, more “practical” majors.
I don’t believe this is a rare attitude towards liberal arts classes either. Many of my friends have mentioned that their parents tell them to “stay on track” and focus on “the classes that matter,” often referring to STEM classes. Many of the people in my Thinking Matters class last quarter, a philosophical discussion about the concept of evil, mentioned that they chose to take that class because they wanted a break from their STEM-heavy course loads. I understand that there are hundreds of kids taking mostly social science classes, but it feels like they’re few and far between.
Those thoughts are based solely on looking at the problem face on. When looking at the financial side of the cuts, things become more reasonable. The university has had to trim $7.6 million from its budget since 2014, and the fact that it hadn’t had any increase in funding from the state means that it continues to run into the problem of having to find new ways to trim money off of the budget while doing the least damage possible. The fact that it has had to turn to cutting academic programs is not surprising when examining the financial burden the university has been dealing with and draws to light a larger question about how much attention is being paid to state schools that struggle with lower enrollment rates and a lack of funds.
At the point where large state public schools have to start eliminating programs and letting go of tenured professors because they do not receive enough funding from the state, a red flag goes up. Not only does that leave the schools in the predicament of having to deal with the shortage of funds, but it lowers the incentive for students to go to that school, leaving the school with another problem that compounds the former: plummeting enrollment rates. Why would a student attend a school that is cutting programs and laying off teachers when they can just apply to another nearby state school that isn’t having those problems?
The lack of funding sends schools down a slippery slope. Problems end up compounding each other until there really is no more the university can do. This is why I don’t blame UWSP but do think what it was forced to do has broader implications on the students at that school and is a commentary on the view of liberal majors in general.
Contact Alex Durham at alex ‘at’ stanford.edu.