STEM Growing, but Communication and Liberal Arts still Cornerstones of Higher Education, deans say.

The globalized 21st Century has ushered in a technologically innovative era, and millenials are adapting accordingly. Students across the country are flocking en masse to the up-and-coming Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) hub.

This national trend is fundamentally reflected on the Marist campus, where STEM programs, including the School of Science and the School of Computer Science and Math, have been flourishing over the last decade.

“In line with what we are seeing in society, we are getting more and more people going into STEM. It’s good for our college that we are getting students that are going into these burgeoning schools,” said Dr. Lyn Lepre, dean of the School of Communication and the Arts. But while STEM programs are driving troves of students to science classrooms, other programs--including the School of Communication and School of Liberal Arts--have suffered slight drops in enrollment numbers throughout the last nine years, despite growing undergraduate enrollment at Marist as a whole.

Both Lepre and Dr. Martin Shaffer, dean of the School of Liberal Arts, attribute these local patterns in part to the larger cultural perception that STEM and business-related, pre-professional careers may offer more lucrative job-prospects post-college.

“Generally, in the last 10-15 years, [enrollments in] liberal arts departments across the country have gone down,” Shaffer said. “There’s this perception out there that if you have a liberal arts degree, you are not going to be marketable after graduation, but the reality of that is simply not true.”

Factoring out enrollment for undeclared majors, the School of Liberal Arts--which includes concentrations such as English, history, political science and philosophy --hit a peak of 457 students in 2010. As of 2018, that number declined to 357.

Up until 2016, English and history were hit the hardest by enrollment declines. Shaffer attributes this drop in part to the misconception that these majors provide a narrow pipeline to careers in education. This cultural idea that pursuing studies in fields such as history and English will inevitably result in teaching professions may not sit well with the growing student demographic disinterested in academia careers.

The School of Communication and the Arts-- the largest program at Marist with a total of 1374 students as of 2018--is in a similar boat as liberal arts programs, facing somewhat long-term yet irregular enrollment declines.

The school is broken down into different majors, with the communication major encompassing programs such as public relations, journalism, sports communication, and communication studies.

“We’ve lost students in the communication major since some ways, we don’t know why,” Lepre said.  “What we’re noticing in comm is that we’re losing some students across pretty much all of the concentrations, but we’re also picking up a lot of minors.”

“One of the things the faculty is looking at is, how do we meet the needs of the students who are moving to another major but still want to keep communication as their minor,” Lepre said.

Although Lepre is unsure as to why a greater number of students are opting for minors in communication, she believes that the continued interest in the field as a whole is a testament to the extensive experiential learning opportunities the department provides, paired with the general understanding that versatile skills in communication will benefit students in their professional careers.

“We are a comprehensive college,” she said. “We have students that pick up those liberal arts skills and move on to pre-professional programs.”

In line with the ever-evolving, fast-paced nature of communication, fueled by the momentous digital wave and increasing dependence on social media, the School of Communication and the Arts has made rapid strides to accommodate cutting-edge advances in the field. During the fall of 2017, the School launched its Center for Social Media, and a year later, it welcomed in a new Center for Sports Communication director--two factors which Lepre said will likely spur growth in the department.

Lepre also lauded the School of Communication’s internship program, which, she believes, “continues to be one of the best in the college.”

Outside-the-classroom learning opportunities reflect in the School of Liberal Arts as well, according to Shaffer. He credits the recent revival of history and English majors to the School’s strong pool of faculty, many of whom champion off-campus trips and exploration. Shaffer applauds Honors Program Director Dr. James Snyder, who he sees as a persuasive force in guiding undecided students toward liberal arts majors.

Certain departments within liberal arts are struggling more than others to consistently attract increasing numbers of students, but one area has been particularly strong in posting positive annual enrollment statistics: political science. Given the turbulent modern political climate, this may not come as a surprise--it certainly doesn’t to Shaffer.

“I do think the political climate has helped political science. Obama’s positive message about public services spurred interest,” he said. “And now...given the negativity and polarization under the current administration, students say, hey, I better get involved, or I better know what’s going on.”

Shaffer also believes shows like House of Cards shouldn’t be overlooked, given ubiquity of pop culture and its ability to steer youth interest.  

Political science at Marist comes with the added benefit of the Marist Poll--a nationally-known, crown jewel of politics at the college.

“Undergraduate research, internships, study abroad, civic, engagement--those are all things that Marist does very well,” Shaffer said. “People want a place where they are going to be engaged in proximity to urban areas.”

While the cultural pendulum may be swinging toward technical, pre-professional fields, both Shaffer and Lepre don’t see the merit of liberal arts and communication diminishing in the eyes of the public any time soon.

“If you put together liberal arts with other things, you are going to be more successful in the long run. You are going to have critical thinking and speaking skills to pair with a pre-professional background,” Shaffer said. “ Even some of our most successful graduates may be in fields that are in communications and business, but [their undergraduate major] was liberal arts.”

Lepre does not see slight enrollment drops as an impediment to the School of Communication and the Arts as a whole, but rather an inevitable outcome of transient annual trends.  

“It’s a bell-curve; numbers shift. We’re still huge--we’re still enrolling very large numbers. We are still enormous compared to the rest of the college.”

“No matter what the numbers are, what I’m most concerned about is delivering the highest possible educational experience we can for students,” she said. “Whether we have 50 fewer students in our major or not, we still want to make sure we are providing tremendous experiences and experiential learning opportunities.”

Alyssa HurlbutComment