Help for the Minor Majors

Princeton is finding ways to get more students to study what they love, not what everyone else is studying.
May 11, 2006

In any given year, Caryl Emerson could easily fit every Slavic languages and literatures major at Princeton University around her dinner table. Five to eight students -- the fewest of any undergraduate program -- typically major in the field at one time.

“There’s not as much activity as we’d like to see,” said Emerson, the department chair. “People don’t major in literature as they used to. There aren’t the jobs.”

Emerson said she has heard of academic advisers at the university recommending that freshmen steer away from Russian classes because they are too difficult. Instead, the masses at Princeton choose to major in what some call the Big Four: economics, politics, history, and public and international affairs.

In an effort to help the smaller departments reach as broad an audience as possible among incoming freshmen and sophomores, Princeton announced the “Major Choices” initiative more than three years ago. The move came after the associate chair of the chemistry department raised concern after finding just 13 majors in one year's class.

The early results are now in -- and they suggest that Princeton has found ways to shift students away from the popular majors and into others. The results could be significant to many other institutions: Many colleges with much tighter budgets than Princeton's are worried about how to support small departments, while academics worry about the impact on an institution of not having a broad range of departments.

Nancy Malkiel, dean of the college at Princeton, who leads the initiative, tallied the major choices among sophomores in the classes of 2005 and 2006 – the last two classes before the initiative started – and from 2007 and 2008. She found that enrollment in the humanities departments increased by 15 percent, while disciplines such as history and politics have seen significant drops.

In particular, majors are up more than 60 percent in comparative literature, classics and Slavic languages departments; more than 40 percent in philosophy and more than 30 percent in French, Italian and archaeology.

The initiative has evolved in stages. Two years ago, the university published “Major Choices” for freshmen. The booklet profiles Princeton graduates who were in the smaller departments and who have gone on to “interesting careers,” Malkiel said.

“We’re trying to communicate to them that studying what you love is the right choice to make,” said Malkiel, a professor of history. “You don’t have to major in something that is practical or something that is a direct route to a professional school or career.

“What students told us is that they made choices [for majors] on the basis of what they saw their friends doing,” she said. “We’d like to break that pattern so that you don’t go to a department because you think you have to or because your parents tell you that you have to, but because you are passionately interested in that field.”  

Princeton also created a curriculum development fund for departments that want to revise courses or develop new ones to draw in more students. Slavic languages received support for a new summer program in St. Petersburg, Russia. Some departments also have used initiative resources to plan lectures or discussions in residential colleges where freshmen and sophomores live in order to get students interested in their fields.

Kirsten Arentzen, undergraduate administrator in Princeton’s chemistry department, said while most years anywhere from 25 to 30 students major in chemistry, 35 rising seniors and 38 rising juniors are majors. “It’s made a big difference,” she said. “I’m happy for [the program].”

On the flip side, there are fewer than 100 juniors majoring in politics this year, down from well over 100 in past years, said Alan Patten, an associate professor and director of the undergraduate program. “My personal view is that it’s not a bad thing for students to be encouraged to check out the variety of programs out there,” he said. “I do worry about a herd mentality, and about students making uninformed decisions about what to concentrate in.”

Patten said the initiative has not taken into account, however, the distribution issues within a department. For instance, while the number of international relations majors remains high, there are few political theory majors, he said.

Malkiel said the intention is not to raid the larger departments. “Some of our colleagues in larger departments think that this is an effort aimed at them and would rather they be able to attract any student,” she said. "Our response is, passionate students can still make their choice."

Debra Humphreys, a spokeswoman from the American Association of Colleges and Universities, said the Princeton program is a positive step toward getting students to consider the full range of majors. She said she would like to see universities emphasize to students the importance of majoring in what they love, not what they think will be marketable.

“[The students] don’t know that businesses are looking for a broad set of outcomes. The name of the major usually matters little,” Humphreys said.


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