As humanities majors continue to drop, students, faculty, administrators grapple with the value of a liberal arts degree

The Science and Engineering Complex is pictured on Feb. 21, 2018. Asha Iyer/The Tufts Daily Archives

Tufts University has long been recognized for its robust liberal arts curriculum and nationally ranked international relations program, while also providing research opportunities and facilities for its undergraduates. Historically, Tufts began as a small liberal arts college chartered by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1852, joining the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) in 1971. While the university gradually transformed into a national research university during Jean Mayer’s presidency from 1976 to 1993, Tufts has maintained liberal arts at its core, providing a wide range of humanities, language and arts courses for its undergraduates.

Changing demographics in undergraduate majors at Tufts

Tufts’ combination of liberal arts and research continues to resonate with students across the nation and globe, attracting more than 22,700 applicants for the Class of 2023. Jessica Parillo, a first-year intending to major in English and political science, said she was first attracted by Tufts’ combination of liberal arts curriculum along with resources typically found at a research university.

“To me, a liberal arts education is about the ability to explore different academic disciplines in humanities, languages, math and sciences,” Parillo said. “[While applying to Tufts,] I liked the distribution requirement as it would expose me to a wide range of subject areas which can help me better understand what I really want to study … Tufts also seemed like a place where people with varying academic interests get to work together and collaborate [across different academic departments].”

While the university continues to provide strong humanities and social sciences curricula and programs, the university has experienced a consistent decline in its liberal arts majors, while STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors have increased significantly. According to the 2018–2019 Tufts Fact Book, the share of STEM majors in a graduating class increased from 22% to 33% over the past five years, an increase from 401 students to 594 in the 2017–2018 academic year. Meanwhile, computer science surpassed international relations as the most popular major at Tufts, with 156 graduating seniors in spring 2018. Humanities and art majors, on the other hand, have dropped from 16% to 11% during the same period.

Potential reasons, explanations for the shift from humanities to STEM

As the student body’s academic demand changes, Philosophy Department Chair Avner Baz shared his observation that might shed light on the statistics.

“Teaching various undergraduate courses at Tufts [over the past 14 years], I came to notice that there are fewer students who are as humanistically inclined as were in the past,” Baz said. “I don’t want to generalize the whole Tufts student body because this has been my experience, but that may well have been a trend … Chairs from other [humanities] departments have also reported to me that the nature of the student population has changed. It might be that the type of students Tufts attracts and admits has changed too.”

Chuan Ting Toh, a senior majoring in English and sociology, echoed Baz’ sentiment, sharing her observations over the past four years that she has spent at Tufts.

“When I was a [first-year], I saw a lot more seniors whose primary academic interest was English, international relations or philosophy with computer science as a double major or as a minor on the side. It seemed to me that many started with their humanities major and then picking up computer science as their secondary academic concentration,” Toh said. “But as a senior now, I see a lot more [first-years] starting off with computer science and supplementing their degrees with something else, possibly with the humanities.”

Meanwhile, the unprecedented growth of the computer science major is even more striking in comparison to the incoming first-year classes’ “potential majors of interest” as indicated during the college application process. According to an article published by Tufts Now, international relations, biology, economics and political science continue to be cited as the most popular academic interests for the incoming first-year class within the School of Arts and Sciences. Bennett Smith-Worthington, a first-year intending to major in international relations or political science, said that students’ academic interests seem to change often during their first semester in college.

“I’d have to say that people feel more pressure about their future and the job market  [during their first semester in college] … In high school, what you’d be doing in college and the life after college seem pretty far away, so students are more likely to say I want to study philosophy or history because I love doing it, for example,” Smith-Worthington said. “Once you are in college, though, you have to start thinking more about the internships and networking and how your major would play into that.”

Parillo added that she felt as though there is an increasing pressure to pursue ‘practical’ majors such as computer science and economics from the student body.

“I found that there’s this stigma around majoring in English or other humanities disciplines [at Tufts],” Parillo said. “When I told people that I am thinking about majoring in English, many responded by saying that I am not going to get a job [with a degree in English]. Some people even think majoring in English is a waste of money and not worth the investment.”

Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences James Glaser, on the other hand, attributed the university’s statistics primarily to a short-term cyclical change, rather than a structural change of Tufts as an institution or of the student body.

“There is always going to be some ebb and flow [of student enrollments across different departments]. Political science, for instance, was a really popular major [at Tufts], but then the enrollment started to go down as law schools suffered in the ’90s … But the number has been coming back up again as more students are interested in studying politics in today’s political climate,” Glaser said. “I’m not sure that the things that are going on now [humanities majors’ decline] are going to be true 10 years or 20 years from now because the things that were true 10 years ago aren’t true now. Also, the overall number changes [of major distributions] haven’t been that greater, either. ”

Glaser also emphasized that the current student body’s changing academic demands will not translate into the liberal arts department’s budget cuts in the foreseeable future, contrary to the nationwide cuts to liberal arts funding.

“The university has a responsibility to maintain our liberal arts environment by providing a broad swath of intellectual territory. [In that context,] not all of our decisions about how resources are going to allocated are based on the student demand today,” Glaser said. “Student demand is most certainly an important variable [in the budget process] as the university wants to offer courses in areas — computer sciences, community health, economics, environmental science and film [and media] studies — where we experience high student demand, but we are making decisions not just for today or tomorrow but for the next 35 years … Our budgetary decisions are a balance between what is a pressing need and what is a long term need [as an institution].”

How Tufts reflects nationwide changes

Despite the university’s commitment to maintaining its broad curriculum and liberal arts emphasis, Tufts faces challenges as college students nationwide are shunning humanities majors. According to an article published by The Atlantic, humanities majors have seen a drop up to 70% among major research universities in the past decade. Even schools like Macalester College, a liberal arts college in Minnesota, now has 41% of its graduates completing a degree in STEM, up from 27% only a decade ago.

With regard to this nationwide change, Career Center Director Greg Victory cited the Great Recession of 2008 and its impact on the labor market as the primary reason. Victory explained that the financial security weighs heavily on college students today when choosing their majors more so than before.

“I think there are couple things that we’ve been learning about the Generation Z, which is the current generation of college students nationwide and at Tufts … This is the generation that saw the financial repercussions of the Great Recession of 2008 and how it impacted their parents and families’ lives growing up,” Victory said. “[Accordingly,] it’s a generation that is consistently more concerned about [its] financial security. So more and more students are picking majors which they think will translate into a higher-paying job and create a sense of job security … There’s also this sense of uncertainty added by the rise of artificial intelligence and job automations in the future. This is why, in many ways, computer science is now the most popular major at Tufts because people think that it will lead to a job that will pay the bills and take care of people around them.”

Victory also added that the rising tuition at Tufts can be another contributing factor in how students choose their majors.

“I do think that the rising tuition adds even more pressure for students to study more ‘practical’ majors such as computer science and economics … But I always ask my students this question, is this something that you want to do for the next five, 10 years? Will this job make you happy? Will this job engage you and make you think?” Victory asked.

Toh added that an increasing number of her peers evaluate their undergraduate education from the rate of investment perspective.

“The other day I heard someone saying, I want to make sure that my tuition is going to be worth it and that my time here will be worth [the investment],” Toh said. “It was interesting to see how people were approaching the topic, as if they were trying to measure their learning in terms of what kind of job they would get and how much they would get paid afterwards … I personally did not think much about how my major would translate into a job that would then make money … but I think it is in the minds of many other people.”

How Tufts accommodates growing majors in STEM fields

Meanwhile, the student body’s ever-increasing academic demand for computer science courses has led to a perceived lack of resources and personalized attention for each student within the department. According to the 2018–2019 Tufts Factbook, the number of computer science majors of a graduating class increased three times over the past five years, from 53 students in 2014 to 156 in 2018. Emily Gheewalla, a sophomore majoring in computer science, said that the department is still relatively new and there are many areas that can be improved even though computer science is now the most popular major at Tufts.

“Even during my time here, I noticed that the computer science department is switching around its courses’ contents and materials … When I took Introduction to Computer Science, for instance, we just learned C++ as our programming language. During the next semester, though, people learned both Python and C++,” Gheewalla said. “This can be a problem especially in upper level courses when students don’t have the same building blocks to work on a project or understand the materials … Also, contrary to other departments that have been around for a while, the computer science department is still experimenting with its courses, majors and concentrations.”

Gheewalla added that the university needs to invest more in the computer science department to reflect the student body’s growing demand.

“When I was registering for my classes this semester, there were less than 10 seats available in all of my required classes in the computer science department. It was more stressful as it was just after students from the School of Engineering had registered,” Gheewalla said. “[As a student enrolled in the School of Arts & Sciences,] by the time it got to my registration time, there were only a few waitlist spots left for me … While the department ended up adding more waitlists, it was really stressful and confusing for everyone involved … Overall, I think that the department needs a lot more faculty to meet the growing demand.”

Regarding the students’ comments, Computer Science Department Chair Kathleen Fisher introduced the university’s ongoing efforts to meet the student body’s growing demand in computer science curriculum.

“The [computer science] department’s budget has grown, but not proportionately to the growth in student enrollments. Such growth cannot happen quickly in a university setting,” Fisher said in an email to the Daily. “We are working to create new sources of revenue to better support the computer science department without taking resources away from other important areas.”

Fisher added that the university is adding undergraduate resources to meet the student body’s growing demand in computer science.

“To help manage the increased number of students, we have grown our undergraduate teaching-assistant program so that more advanced students are partnering with faculty to help with grading, answering student questions online and during in-person office hours, running labs, and teaching recitations using faculty-prepared materials,” Fisher noted. “To support these undergraduate teaching assistants, we have created a semester-long training course for new TAs and various course-specific mentoring programs … We currently have more than 170 undergraduates helping in this capacity. We also hire more adjunct faculty to teach individual courses in their area of expertise.”

The case for liberal arts

As a counterpoint to the computer science department’s struggle to meet the student body’s growing demand, many humanities departments now have to build a case for a liberal arts education and its value. Baz noted that the role of humanities and liberal arts will continue to evolve as the student body’s academic interests change nationwide and at Tufts.

“If we can make the case for the relevance and importance of philosophy and other humanities disciplines, the university will continue to invest in these academic disciplines, and students will continue to take courses from these departments without even majoring in them,” Baz said. “We are planning on hiring a faculty who would be focusing in their work on philosophy in technology, for example. We are also introducing new courses in well-being and human mind that would have a wider appeal to Tufts students … What humanities and philosophy department will continue to offer is an opportunity for our students to reflect on what they do and the significance of their work, and overall, how to live a good, meaningful life.”

Echoing Baz’s sentiment, Victory emphasized the value of a liberal arts degree in today’s society and job market.

“I know that there are more and more employers out there who want students with a liberal arts background and experience. [For instance,] we just had the head of HR [Human Resources] from Fidelity who spent his entire day on campus. His message throughout the day was that they need more people who can attack problems from multiple perspectives,” Victory said. “He said that the company wants people who can understand the cultural context of a decision, who can understand the ethical ramifications of making choices around a data set, and those who have a sense of how a policy might impact the decisions and work they do.”

Victory also encouraged students to take risks and emphasized that the university is always there to support its students. He has learned that Tufts students put effort into their careers and internships.

“[Tufts students are] the type of interns who will ask for more work to do because they believe in what they are doing. They are not afraid to tap into the problems that they’ve learned in multiple disciplines to say, ‘I am a biology major, but I took this anthropology class and I know how we can figure this out,’” Victory said. “[In today’s job market and economy,] I think the value of Tufts education is that we create these opportunities for students to try and test different things out and to be driven, knowing that it is okay to be wrong sometimes and even to fail … I want the students to know that the university will be here … to support them from their first jobs and beyond to help them have an engaging and meaningful career development.”


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