The Sociologist Gap

Departments report significant increases in number of majors and degrees awarded -- and flat faculty lines. Graduate programs are becoming more selective -- and not for the reasons scholars like.
November 19, 2008

Sociology departments are successfully attracting students, but without a corresponding growth in faculty lines. That's the conclusion of a new national survey of sociology departments conducted by the American Sociological Association.

The survey -- conducted in 2007 and updating a study from 2001 -- came before the recent economic downturn that has crunched budgets at many colleges and is probably adding to the pressures documented in "What Is Happening in Your Department?," written by Roberta Spalter-Roth, director of research for the association. Further adding to the concern is that graduate programs are reducing the percentage of applicants they admit, who would eventually add to the faculty base. While such an increase in selectivity could be considered a healthy sign, the two reasons given for it in the survey don't suggest strength. The reasons are lack of funds for stipends and the declining quality of applicants.

The report also includes quotes from department chairs, most of whom sound stressed: "Too many students, too few resources." "We have nearly doubled in size with the influx of education majors choosing sociology as their second major. We have not had an increase in faculty." "Looming retirements and uncertainty about position replacement."

Of course, some of the data collected in the report -- which was based on a survey of all departments that award at least one sociology bachelor's degree annually -- suggest health for the profession. The number of students majoring in sociology and receiving bachelor's degrees is up across a variety of sectors of higher education:

Median Number of Majors and Bachelor's Degrees in Sociology Departments, 2001 and 2007

Sector Median Majors, 2001 Median Majors, 2007 Median Degrees, 2001 Median Degrees, 2007
Research university 178 231 56 71
Doctoral university 96 125 31 35
Master's institution 62 72 19 21
Baccalaureate institution 28 44 10 14

Within the major, more departments are offering concentrations; criminal justice is the most popular, followed by social services. Despite the growth at the undergraduate level, increases in enrollment were modest in master's programs and largely non-existent in doctoral programs.

During the time period studied, full-time faculty slots have essentially been flat, with the exception of an increase in Research II institutions. At Research I institutions, the median number of full-time faculty members fell to 17 from 18 from 2001 to 2007. Likewise, across sectors, the median number of new tenure-track professors hired has been flat (1 per department) during the period of enrollment growth (and plenty of retirements).

Meanwhile, the percentage of applicants admitted to graduate programs is declining.

Percentage of Applicants Admitted to Sociology Graduate Programs, 2001 and 2007

Sector 2001 2007
Research I 25% 19%
Research II 40% 29%
Doctoral I 58% 47%
Doctoral II 67% 48%
Master's I 77% 66%

An additional frustration noted by many faculty members was the role of assessment, the survey found. Overwhelming majorities of departments report that they have formal assessment programs focused on undergraduate student learning. At research universities, where the percentage is lowest, 74 percent now have assessment programs.

But the survey found considerable skepticism about these programs. While some view assessment as a tool for program improvement, many fear that the good ideas that result won't be executed because they may cost money. Many others complained about the additional work involved in assessment.

"Chairs appear to be overwhelmed by the amount of work required to conduct assessments, on the one hand, and discouraged by the lack of resources to implement curriculum changes suggested by the assessment results," the report said. It quoted one chair as saying: "We spend far too much time assessing students.... Now we have double the regular work plus all this assessment stuff."


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