Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters is the oldest college at Notre Dame. It’s the academic foundation for the entire university. It’s at the core of the school’s distinctive mission. And ever since Notre Dame was founded, it has been the college with the largest enrollment.
This year, for the first time, it’s not.
Enrollment in Arts and Letters has declined 31 percent in the last ten years, and as of this semester, Mendoza College of Business will overtake the College of Arts and Letters as the largest college at Notre Dame.
John T. McGreevy, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, says the largest factor in declining enrollment has been the state of the U.S. economy. “We saw a decline beginning in 2008 with the economic crash … but we’re definitely eager to get more students,” he says.
Since 2004, enrollment in the College of Engineering has grown by 56 percent and the Mendoza College of Business has increased by 33 percent.
Based on measures colleges are taking this year, the shrinking enrollment in Arts and Letters may have a chance to stabilize, but if Arts and Letters hopes to increase its enrollment, it will have to reverse the perception that its graduates aren’t competitive in the job market.
Megan Shea, who graduated in 2009 as a English and Film, Television, and Theater major, explains what it was like to graduate in a tanked economy, when job offers were rare.
Shea says she was delighted to get a job as a paralegal, even though it wasn’t a career she’d intended to pursue. “The first job offer I got, which was in about March of 2009, I just took it. I didn’t wait around. I didn’t weigh options. I just took the first thing and I figured, I’ll wait this out and then I’ll look for something better,” she says.
After the recession, students started to care more about jobs than education. In 2006, most college freshmen said a “very important” reason to go to college was “to learn more about things that interest me,” according to the UCLA Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP). But in 2011, after the recession, even more students agreed that a “very important” reason to go to college was “to be able to get a better job.”
The downward trend in Notre Dame Arts and Letters enrollment is a part of a national movement that may reflect a fear that liberal arts graduates aren’t competitive in the job market. Among other highly-ranked, private universities, the percentage of students studying arts, humanities and social sciences dropped by almost 7 percent from 2004 to 2013, according to the UCLA CIRP Freshman Survey. In that same time, the percentage of students studying business grew by 10 percent, and those in traditional engineering majors went up 1 percent.
During the recession, enrollment shrunk as students started to believe Arts and Letters graduates couldn’t get jobs.
Ted Korolyshun, a senior American Studies major, says, “Yeah I think there’s definitely that perception … The visibility of Mendoza students getting jobs in the fall puts the pressure on Arts and Letters kids. I’m in a house with six roommates and a lot of them have jobs, and if you’re sitting there and a lot of your roommates are getting jobs you kind of feel like, ‘Wait, should I have a job?’”
Anita Rees, Career Exploration Specialist at the Notre Dame Career Center, agrees. She says, “I think that’s a lot of the tension that we felt on campus.”
But Rees says it’s a misconception that Arts and Letters students can’t compete with business and engineering majors.
“I have a soapbox now that I’m on,” she says. “It isn’t the majors. It has nothing to do with that. It has everything to do with when the industry hires.” Rees says industries in which Arts and Letters majors typically apply, like public relations, nonprofits and marketing, often don’t start recruiting until after winter break.
McGreevy says Arts and Letters students fare just fine when competing for jobs.
“What percentage of Arts and Letters students say they’re looking for a job six months after graduation? Three percent. It’s not better than our other colleges, but it’s the same,” he says.
And it’s true that since the recession, the numbers for Arts and Letters have improved significantly. The percentage of students employed straight out of college grew by 10 percent from 2008 to 2013, according to Notre Dame Career Center data.
Salaries have gone up, too. In 2008, the average Arts and Letters student made $42,256. In 2013, it was $46,080.
Dean McGreevy thinks it’s a fallacy that Arts and Letters students don’t get jobs, and he wants to communicate that better. He says, “We’re just trying to do everything we can to tell students what we think is a great story about what happens to our majors.”
But despite all this growth, Arts and Letters still can’t match the salaries and employment rates of business and engineering students.
In 2013, the average Notre Dame engineering student one year out of college made $62,973 and the average business student made $58,395.
After college, 82 percent of business students and 70 percent of engineering students are employed, compared to merely 46 percent of Arts and Letters students.
A major reason for this employment discrepancy, however, is that 18 percent of Arts and Letters students do full-time service after college and 31 percent go to graduate school. Only 2 percent of business and engineering students end up in service programs, and less than 20 percent of business and engineering students go to graduate school.
Dean McGreevy says the college is proud that its graduates pursue service. He says, “If you look at that data, [service is] really limited to Arts and Letters and Science students seeking full-time service. Business and Engineering really aren’t doing that. That’s something terrific and really a powerful force for good.”
Rees says students don’t just pursue service as a backup plan. “Students are opting for internships with ACE [the Alliance for Catholic Education] the year before they can even apply … The [highest number of] applicants for TFA [Teach For America] are in the fall. It’s very intentional. It’s a pretty intense final interview process, so it’s not just something that students decide to do on a whim.”
However, Korolyshun thinks that for his Arts and Letters classmates, graduate school is often a plan B. “There’s always law school, which to me seems like a default for a lot of kids … I still want to go to law school, I think, but sometimes it just feels like a default because I don’t know what else to do,” he says.
The data doesn’t lie: employment outcomes for Arts and Letters students are different than their business and engineering classmates. But the data doesn’t clearly show if all Arts and Letters outcomes are out of choice or out of necessity.
The top five skills employers look for in applicants are “soft skills”: teamwork, decision-making, organization, verbal communication and ability to process information, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
That’s why, the Notre Dame Career Center says, Arts and Letters students won’t have poor job prospects, even if they lack technical knowledge.
(The sixth, seventh and eighth most-desired skills are technical skills: ability to analyze quantitative data, technical knowledge related to the job and proficiency with computer programs.)
Megan Shea now works in consulting, and she says her Arts and Letters education didn’t prepare her for employers’ most desired skill: ability to work in a team. She says teamwork wasn’t heavily emphasized when she was in school.
“Not in Arts and Letters,” Shea says. “I was an English and Film major. When I think about how I spent most of my time, it was really writing. It was a lot of big papers and discussions and not a lot of teamwork, which was fine. But if you think about the workforce today, I think a lot of it requires some team skills. That’s something I feel like I did miss out on.”
But Shea thinks her Arts and Letters major helped her communicate and argue better, which put her at an advantage in the consulting field.
“I really think writing skills are so highly desirable. Even when it comes down to being able to put together a succinct and compelling email, it’s important. It makes a big difference in being able to establish credibility and being able to influence others,” Shea says.
Shea thinks that without her Arts and Letters background, she wouldn’t be as skilled at analyzing social interactions.
“My majors gave me a good sense of empathy and being able to pick up on nuances in interpersonal interactions, to read between what people are saying to get at, ‘Okay what’s their motivation here
and how can I respond to make them feel better?’” Shea says, “You need to tailor your communications to resonate with that audience.”
Still, Shea wishes she hadn’t missed out on basic business principles.
She says, “Of course that only applies to people who want to be in a business environment, but being able to understand some fundamentals was something I didn’t have.”
Rees says that Arts and Letters students can look outside their college for technical training. “There are other ways on campus to get the quantitative side and the technical side if you feel you’re missing it. I just don’t think we have to think business is the only way to do it … we have lots of project-based groups like the consulting forum, like SIBC,” she says.
Baska adds that jobs often provide on-the job training, “There could be times when having some of that Excel or what have you is beneficial but a lot of times you’re going to have that training on the job. They can get people up to speed on that.”
Where Shea works, at an executive search and leadership consulting firm, young employees often learn about business on the fly. “The firm that I work in tends to hire Arts and Letters majors, whether that’s econ majors or English or poli-sci, so they understand coming in that you’re not going to know a lot about business, but if you ask questions and use your head you’ll pick up enough.”
But ultimately, Shea doesn’t think she can rise to the top of her field with an Arts and Letters education alone. “A lot of people end up going to get their MBA, even if they had an Arts and Letters undergrad,” she says.
“I feel like if I want to advance in this field, [a business education] is a requirement. And I’m excited about it, but I don’t think I could sort of get away with this career path if I don’t go and get that education,” Shea says.
“It would be great to have the chops: being able to read the financials and just understand from an education point of view what this all means,” Shea says.
Of course, Arts and Letters students only need business chops if they want to work in business.
Rees says she likes to remind students that “business” isn’t limited to the companies that recruit on campus; the field is bigger than a collection of Wall Street firms, accounting firms and giants like Target and General Mills.
Rees says, “Of the huge array of businesses that are out there and come to, say, the Fall Career Fair, it’s just a small subset. When those are the only ones you’re looking at, then some of them definitely are looking for all the hours in accounting, and you can’t do those if you don’t have them.”
Rees raises a great question: for what types of jobs are Arts and Letters graduates competitive? She says the college’s flexibility prepares its students for a huge variety of careers, like publishing, communications, government and nonprofit.
Maureen Baska, Career Engagement Specialist at the Notre Dame Career Center, says, “For so many majors there’s not going to be that direct corollary in the outside world. Maybe there are a couple [that directly correspond] — Something like engineering or accounting. If you want to do those things later, okay maybe you should major in them.”
So perhaps students aren’t as concerned with getting a job, as much as they’re concerned with getting a high-paying job, like engineering or accounting.
Shea says the high price of her education made her decide to get a higher-paying job.
She first worked as a paralegal, and then at a nonprofit,” she says. “The first couple of jobs I had out of school I definitely felt underpaid, and part of it was just the fields that I was in.”
“That absolutely motivated me to pursue something else.” Shea says, “I kept thinking to myself, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve got this great education, and I have peers in other fields who are making at least double what I’m making, so with that much to offer, why would I try to sell myself short?’”
Don Bishop, associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment, recognizes that tuition might affect how students choose majors. He says, “The cost of college continues to be so
much higher than it was 20 or 30 years ago, so people feel like there’s less freedom to take lower paying jobs or careers because they have more invested in their college degree.”
Korolyshun says he’s noticed this feeling in some of his friends who are seniors. “When parents are footing the bill for their kids [students] kind of feel like it’s a guilt thing if they go and do service after undergrad because they’re not earning,” Korolyshun says.
Enrollment in Arts and Letters will have a chance to stop shrinking next year; Mendoza will implement an enrollment cap and Engineering plans to stop its growth by working with the Office of Admissions.
There are 653 students in Mendoza’s senior class this year, but next year’s cap will limit each class to 550.
Roger Huang, Dean of Mendoza College of Business, thinks this will stabilize Mendoza’s enrollment and prompt growth in other colleges. It’s possible Arts and Letters will take back its spot as the college with highest enrollment.
Huang says, “Notre Dame has a fixed number of students that it serves each year … So the pool would still be the same, and since we have a cap, it means, by definition, that there will be more students in other colleges. I think that will happen.”
This year, when applying to Notre Dame, students must indicate their intent to major in business and be “pre-approved” to do so. A number of students who are not pre-approved will be able to compete for spots after their first year. If students want to ensure they have a seat in Mendoza, they’ll have to decide on their college before they’ve even enrolled in their first year.
Baska says, “I personally think that is kind of young to make that decision. It will ratchet up the pressure, I think.”
As it is, Bishop thinks that even freshman or sophomore year can be too early for some students to narrow their focus to one major. “A 17 or 18-year-old is not ready for the sophistication of this discussion … they’re acting more out of this assumption of obvious options: engineers get jobs, business majors are better prepared for that first job,” Bishop says.
He says, “We haven’t done our research to show the public, in a convincing way, what the Arts and Letters majors can do for you.”
Peter Kilpatrick, Dean of the College of Engineering, says, “I think students come here at 17, 18 years old, not totally understanding what their passion in life is, and Mom and Dad counsel them and say, ‘You want to pick something where you can go get a strong job and where you can be confident that a job is going to exist.’ As a result I think you see many people who historically might have gotten a degree in Arts and Letters or the sciences or social sciences thinking more about business and engineering.”
Kilpatrick says that, like Mendoza, Engineering’s growth rate will soon level off. “We’ve gotten as big as we can get … Unless we get a bunch more faculty and space, it’d be very difficult for us to grow any more,” he says.
The College of Engineering works closely with the Office of Admissions to admit the correct amount of applicants who mark their intent to study engineering.
The Career Center says they want to communicate the value of choosing an Arts and Letters degree. Rees says, “An assistant dean said to me, ‘If we could only help our liberal arts students have the confidence of the Princeton liberal arts students because Princeton does not have a business school and those students have the same employers coming to their school that we have with ours. Our liberal arts [students] just tend to not have the confidence to believe that they are just as competitive as anybody else.’”
Bishop says one of the great things about Arts and Letters is that it offers flexibility. He says, “For a lot of us, when we come to Notre Dame, we’re interested in a lot of things, so the question is often, ‘What one thing do I major in if I’m
interested in a lot of things?’ The nice thing about liberal arts is that unlike engineering and science and business, it’s a more open curriculum, so you can study multiple things.”
But as Korolyshun searches for jobs this year, he thinks his American Studies degree holds him back because jobs see him as too well-rounded.
“There’s a lack of focus with my undergrad experience,” he says. “If you were to be in a technical area, like business or engineering, you kind of show that you’ve committed to this one thing … My major is very interdisciplinary … It kind of feels like when I’m interviewed, they doubt that I’m committed.”
That’s why the Career Center recommends students start pinpointing their interests early. Rees says, “If you’ve gone through the discernment process, you’re thinking, ‘These are my intense interests. I’m really good at these things and I love doing them. They motivate me,’ then you’ve got a base and a foundation from which to work for any kind of job hopping you want to do.”
Study What You Love
There’s a familiar chorus from the Office of Admissions, Career Center employees and the deans of Mendoza, Arts and Letters and Engineering: study what you love.
The Career Center runs a program that helps students choose their major. Baska says, “Our big thing is just, ‘Study what you really enjoy.’ And that’s actually very practical because you’ll do better. You’ll get better grades, you’ll be happier, better GPA, better prospects.”
Therese Cushing is a sophomore who studied business this fall, but next semester she’ll switch to an English major.
“I liked the classes just fine, but I’m not even sure that business is something that I’m going to go into,” she says.
So, she decided to study something she knew she enjoyed. “I’ve always loved reading and writing,” she says. “[English] is a good major. It’s very marketable, so I can still go into business but study something that I love.”
Cushing still plans to get a business minor along with her English degree, which is similar to what Shea wishes she’d done. Shea says if she could go back to school, she would replace one of her Arts and Letters majors with a business major to get a more comprehensive education.
McGreevy says, “The key thing is to study what you’re most interested in. If it’s anthropology, great. If it’s chemistry, great. But don’t waste these four years studying something that you think will get you a job but not intellectual stimulation. That’s pretty depressing.”