One morning this past spring semester, Kathryn Wisniewski, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP), opened her campus email to discover that her major in English was on the chopping block. It was among 13 majors, she read, all in the liberal arts, that the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs proposed cutting in order to help cover the university’s $4.5 million deficit. By cutting 13 liberal arts majors, such as sociology, philosophy and history, UWSP would also create and expand several other majors in business, engineering and science to attract new students and revenue.
Wisniewski was shocked. So were many of her peers. As co-editor in chief of the student newspaper at UWSP, she started interviewing students and staff about the proposal.
“I think the overall response is heartbreak because students in these majors recognize the value of them,” she says. “Saying, ‘Oh, there’s not going to be a philosophy major,’ or ‘There’s not going to be a Spanish major,’ it doesn’t make sense. A lot of the discussions that I think we had were – where is this coming from?”
Cuts to the liberal arts aren’t isolated to the UWSP campus, they’re happening across the country. Jon Marcus, higher education editor at The Hechinger Report, says it’s due to a number of factors, including a steep decline in students choosing liberal arts majors.
In 1967, one in five students enrolled in a U.S. university majored in the liberal arts. Today, that’s down to one in 20 students, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Marcus wrote about this decline in a recent article for The Hechinger Report.
In many states, like Wisconsin, the decline of liberal arts majors is also the result of broad cuts to state higher education funding. Under Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, the University of Wisconsin System has seen major budget cuts. In the 1970s, the UW System received about 75 percent of its instructional budget from state taxpayers. Today, it receives about 17 percent of the core instructional budget from taxpayers.
Marcus says similar scenes are playing out at public universities in many states with Republican governors.
“And this is quantifiable, not political,” Marcus says. He says the decline is most acute in, “states with Republican governors who question the value of allocating budget money toward higher education for majors in fields they don’t necessarily believe are connected to the economic needs of their states.”
Marcus says universities are struggling to sell a liberal arts degree as a means to a job, and the financial stakes are too high for today’s college students. Telling people that “college is not just about a job” doesn’t cut it anymore.
“You cannot charge people the the amount of money that colleges and universities charge people now and expect them to walk away accepting that answer,” Marcus says. “You have to show them what they’re getting for their money.”
Listen to the Educate Podcast to hear why universities are getting rid of their liberal arts majors, and the students in Wisconsin who are fighting to keep theirs.