College is remade as tech majors surge and humanities dwindle

The number of students nationwide seeking four-year degrees in computer and information sciences and related fields shot up 34 percent from 2017 to 2022, to about 573,000, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The English-major head count fell 23 percent in that time, to about 113,000. History fell 12 percent, to about 77,000.

Similar patterns unfolded at College Park. In 2010, arts and humanities majors of all kinds outnumbered the computer science total at U-Md. more than 4 to 1. Now the university counts about 2,400 students majoring in arts and humanities – a collection of disciplines that fill an entire college – and about 3,300 in computer science.

The turnabout sparked a scramble to find enough faculty for the growing field and lure students back to subjects such as English and history. As with many schools, U-Md. is searching for a new academic equilibrium to handle rising demand for tech credentials and simultaneously preserve what appear to be vulnerable pillars of the humanist tradition.

New majors, such as “immersive media design,” are arising to bridge technology and humanities as departments in older fields push to stay competitive. The ferment has fed debate about the purpose of college, the value of degrees and how much career prospects – rather than passion for learning – shape the academic paths that students take.

Some schools have taken radical steps. Marymount University, a Catholic institution in Northern Virginia, decided in February to phase out history and English majors, citing low enrollment and a responsibility to prepare students “for the fulfilling, in-demand careers of the future.” St. Mary’s University of Minnesota made a similar announcement last year.

There is no sign that more prominent colleges and universities will follow suit. “I don’t see that ever happening at this institution,” said Jennifer King Rice, U-Md.’s provost. What she called “fundamental majors” also help huge numbers of students meet general graduation requirements. “English and history are not dying,” Rice said. “You can quote me on that.”

Asked about large computer science courses, Rice said: “There’s really not a formula for class size. There’s a lot of variation and even faculty themselves feel comfortable in different kinds of settings.”

But are the humanities too small? Has computer science gotten too big?

Some students interviewed at U-Md. shortly before its commencement Monday say they have mixed feelings.

Enthusiastic about cybersecurity in high school, Patel came to College Park to study computer science in 2018. She often found herself in large classes. Linguistics and especially Persian studies, both based in the College of Arts and Humanities, were another matter. “You are always ‘on’ because the classes are so small,” she said.

She found balance. Courses in Farsi and contemporary Iranian issues “expanded my world,” Patel said, while computer science honed her analytic skills. After graduation, she will work for a language-acquisition laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There’s a lot of different places I could go from where I am now,” she said.

Computer science, a base for exploring artificial intelligence and other topics, is not the only hot subject these days. Data science has taken off over the past decade. So has nursing. Business, management and marketing have enduring appeal.

In a time of economic upheaval, avoiding debt and landing a good job are top goals for many students. Value matters.

“Public confidence in college paying off is being questioned at a higher rate than ever before,” Michael Itzkowitz, former director of the federal College Scorecard, wrote in an email. “Some of this has to do with rising tuition costs. Some of this was influenced by the pandemic, where many students were questioning the cost they were paying to learn from their home computer, rather than being on a physical college campus.”

New data from College Scorecard shows how much the choice of a major can affect salaries. For U-Md. graduates in computer and information sciences who received federal financial aid, the figures show the median salary four years after earning a bachelor’s degree topped $116,000. The median for history graduates was about $53,000, and for English graduates it was about $47,700. Those figures echo findings at large public schools including Virginia Tech and Rutgers University.

Critics say such data gives an incomplete picture of the value of a major, omitting the intangible rewards of academic and career happiness, as well as the lifetime earning potential of those who might seek graduate or professional degrees.

But money is on the minds of students and parents.

Maxwell Myers, 21, a senior from Ellicott City, Md., said he was undecided on a major when he arrived in 2019. But his mother planted a suggestion. “My mom was always like, ‘Computer science pays a lot,'” he said.

“But I didn’t really know how much it paid until I got an internship and I was like, ‘Oh. Okay. Okay, yeah. I see.'”

The major was rigorous, he said, testing his problem-solving powers. Among his favorite classes, he said, was “advanced data structures.” It was rewarding, he said, “to learn a lot of different ways that companies store their data.” He also enjoyed an anthropology class that dove into national immigration debates.

After graduation, Myers said, he is headed to Seattle for an internship with Microsoft.

He and his classmates are aware of uncertainties in the tech job market, including significant layoffs at big-name companies.

“There are so many CS majors,” said Medha Kuruganti, 22, a senior in computer science from Mansfield, Mass. The job search, she said, was difficult. “There were still a lot of open opportunities. You just had to find them.” She said she landed a software engineering position in New Jersey with JPMorgan Chase & Co.

U-Md., alma mater of the Google co-founder Sergey Brin, has deep connections to tech industries and nearby federal agencies that fund research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Still, the explosive growth of the computer science major there is striking.

University data shows that there were 925 computer science majors at College Park in 2010. By last fall, the total had more than tripled, to 3,329, including specialty tracks such as machine learning, cybersecurity and quantum information. Federal statistics show that U-Md. awarded 810 bachelor’s degrees in computer science in 2021, second only to 822 awarded by the University of California at Irvine.

The Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Engineering, a gleaming, $152 million edifice with a rooftop garden, is emblematic of the rise of computer science in College Park. It opened in 2019 near the university’s entrance on Route 1.

That year, the university also moved to limit growth in the major, by requiring students who want to enter it to achieve certain minimum grades in gateway classes. In recent years it has also added faculty and teaching assistants – including squadrons of undergraduate TAs, who earn $16 per hour – advisers, computer equipment and more. Addressing the enrollment surge “is actually very challenging,” said Amitabh Varshney, dean of computer, mathematical and natural sciences. “We are very careful in making sure that we keep the quality as high as possible.”

For many prospective students strong in math and science but uncertain about a major, computer science has become a default choice. University officials want them to explore all options. To that end, they recently launched the immersive media design major, combining art and computer science.

Eva Ginns, 20, a junior from Rockville, Md., jumped to it after starting in computer science. She is thinking about careers in video games and museum exhibitions. Ginns said smaller classes are a significant draw. “I really have gotten to know my professors and that’s been really important to me,” she said.

For the College of Arts and Humanities, the quest to lure crossover students such as Ginns is increasingly urgent. The number declaring a major within the college peaked at 4,423 in 2010, U-Md. data shows. Since then it has dropped 45 percent, to 2,435 last fall.

Elsewhere, a decline of that magnitude might lead to faculty cuts or layoffs. But U-Md. officials say the university’s budget policies have shielded the college.

“We need to be mindful in our academic planning that we allow programs to grow where there’s demand,” Rice, the provost, said. “But we at the same time work hard to create demand in spaces where programs are not growing as fast as they might or are holding steady or declining in enrollment. So there’s just this constant mindfulness about balance.”

Stephanie Shonekan, dean of arts and humanities since last summer, acknowledged the enrollment slump. “Certainly numbers are important,” Shonekan said. “So I’m not shying away from that at all. What we need to do is think about new ways of packaging old things.”

She pointed to a new major blending philosophy, politics and economics. Known as PPE, it now draws more students (164) than philosophy itself (46).

Rachelle Guy, 22, a senior from Stamford, Conn., started as a journalism major, got intrigued by economics and stumbled across PPE. “It looked like the kind of major where I can make it my own,” Guy said. All three of the disciplines appealed to her. She switched out of journalism. “I wanted to write about the theories behind politics, the theories behind economics. And I wanted to kind of develop my own theories.”

Guy said her parents, immigrants from Ukraine and Latvia, were at first concerned about PPE. “They would always say, ‘What are you doing with that?’ Because it’s not obvious, right?” Now they are onboard. She is headed to law school at New York University in the fall.

Blended majors are one answer to the arts and humanities decline. Another is to cajole students from other fields – such as Patel – to add a second or third major. A third tactic is to expand minors. U-Md. has a new one in humanities, health and medicine, with another launching this fall in digital storytelling and poetics.

Shonekan said the college must also emphasize the quality of its traditional majors. “We don’t want to be on the defensive all the time,” she said. She added: “In the societies where we have not valued the humanities, we have failed.”

In a March article headlined “The End of the English Major,” the New Yorker explored grim statistics for a field that spans a global literature, from the 14th-century poet Chaucer to the 21st-century novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and beyond. But Amanda Bailey, a medieval and Renaissance expert who is chair of English at U-Md., said she is optimistic.

“I’m not worried about the major count,” she said. Including those who take writing classes for degree requirements, Bailey said, her department serves many thousands of undergraduates a year. “If people want to count what they call ‘butts in seats,’ we’re coming out ahead,” she said.

As for the major, Bailey contends that employers want college graduates with multidisciplinary savvy. They want innovators, lifelong learners, communicators who can reflect, analyze and interpret a text, no matter what the medium. “That’s what we do in English,” Bailey said.

Caleb Hurley, who turns 34 on Saturday, is a transfer student who majored in English. Hurley, of Silver Spring, Md., went back to school after years of working for Starbucks. “I guess I took a 14-year ‘gap’ year,” he said, joking.

When he started at Montgomery College, Hurley said, he was intent on computer science. He left that major but remains pulled by technology. He talks about “game preservation,” wanting to save ephemeral stories and narratives from the video-gaming world. One of his favorite classes explored Alfred Hitchcock films. (Traditionalists, fear not: He also loves James Joyce and Emily Dickinson.)

Hurley, who wrote six stories for an honors project, hopes to become a published author. After he graduates, he plans to work for an African American digital humanities initiative at the university. “This is me wanting to be at the ground level – a bridge between the humanities and computer science,” he said.

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