‘Concerned about enrollments’: As humanities lose numbers to STEM nationwide, Duke grapples with similar trends

An illustration representing people with different professions.

In February 2011, former President Richard Brodhead arrived at his annual faculty address with a message on the importance of the humanities. 

"Education in the humanities and the humanistic social sciences needs boosting," Brodhead said, announcing that he would be co-chairing a congressionally requested national commission to examine the state of the two fields. 

Two years later, the group found that “the perception of the values of the humanities has eroded to the point where people think they can just dismiss them,” Brodhead told Duke Today. 

Now, more than a decade later, it seems not much has changed. Enrollment in the humanities has dropped at colleges nationwide — including Duke — in the last ten years, while the number of STEM degrees have skyrocketed. Some have called the trend a crisis in the humanities; others an extinction

At this year’s annual faculty address, President Vincent Price opted for less extreme language, calling it “an interesting moment in the humanities.”

“I’m more concerned about enrollments in humanities ... ,” Price said. “The value of the humanities will be rolling over the next couple of years, decades really, as the world swings more prominently towards science and technology.” 

Data compiled by the Academic Advising Center reveals sharp declines over the last decade in the number of Duke students majoring in subjects like history, English and political science, following national trends. Meanwhile, that of computer science, Duke’s fastest-growing major, has soared. The Chronicle’s analysis focused on primary majors for Duke students, not secondary majors or Duke Kunshan students. 

Professors in Duke’s humanities departments say they’ve long been concerned about reductions in majors.

“I would go to meetings in the department and meetings with other colleagues in other departments in the humanities, and people would talk about declining enrollments,” said Mark Goodacre, chair for the department of religious studies. “It would be almost like a mantra that people would always mention.” 

Frank Blalark, associate vice provost and university registrar, explained how majors at Duke have changed over the years.  

While the University’s degree completion statistics for economics, public policy and biology have remained relatively stable over the past decade, majors within the fields of computer science, interdepartmental studies and electrical and computer engineering “have each experienced sharp and consistent increases in student completions over the past decade,” he wrote.

Duke’s most recent publicly available data clearly reflects both Goodacre and Blalark’s observations. Out of the five most popular primary majors for Duke seniors graduating in 2022 — computer science (BS), economics (BS), public policy (AB), biology (BS) and electrical and computer engineering (BSE) — none were in the humanities. 

Visualization created by Katie Tan

Why are STEM majors so popular at Duke? 

Jun Yang, chair of the computer science department, revealed that computer science — the most popular major of 2022 — has seen a tenfold increase in the number of students pursuing the major over the past dozen years. 

This trend is observable in this year’s graduating class, as Jerome Lynch, Vinik dean of the Pratt School of Engineering, confirmed that the most popular second major for Pratt students in the Class of 2023 is computer science, with electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering representing the two most popular primary majors.

Lynch wrote in an email that he believes the growing role of technology — such as data, automation and machine learning — in society and education has contributed to the increasing popularity of STEM majors, including those related to computing, data science and artificial intelligence. 

“Technology is transforming how we function as a society, with the pace of technological change only accelerating. This excites students, especially those looking to be a driving force of the change,” he wrote. “Many of these students have a strong sense of purpose centered on advancing science and technology to solve complex societal challenges like climate change, security and health resilience.” 

Technological developments have not only opened more avenues to solve social problems but also increased the demand for STEM careers. Opportunities and career prospects appear to factor into Duke students’ choice of major.  

For example, sophomore Zaid Muqsit chose the computer science major out of interest and career prospects. 

“I really like the content that I am learning, and obviously the lifestyle and money that you make is a clear plus,” he said. “I feel like in this society that we’re in, it definitely feels like quantitative degrees are more valued.” 

A 2022 survey of computer science majors at Duke provided to The Chronicle by Yang reflected Muqsit’s sentiments. It found that 40% of majors chose computer science because “it will enable [them] to make a lot of money” and 62% because “the job market for this field is promising.” 

Other top reasons students chose to major in computer science included that they “like learning about this field” (64%) and that the “courses required of this major are interesting” (41%). 

“I must admit, we no longer see a big difference between Duke and peer institutions in the [percentage] who are looking to make an impact on society,” Yang wrote. “That said, there is still a sizable proportion who are not only motivated by job and money prospects.” 

According to a Business Insider article with data from May 2021, computer and information research scientists placed third in a list of highest salaries by scientific field, with a median annual salary of $131,490.

Why is enrollment in the humanities declining?   

Many of the disciplines with zero students at Duke completing primary majors in 2022 — including classical languages, French studies, German, Italian studies, religious studies, Russian, Slavic and Eurasian studies and women’s studies – are humanities fields, and most majors with no enrollment are Bachelors of Arts degrees. 

Enrollment in religious studies has declined significantly over Goodacre’s time at Duke. 

“For this year, we only have one graduating major in spring 2023,” he said. “When I first came to Duke in 2000, we would regularly have 30+ majors. So that’s a huge decline.” 

Paralleling the decline of religious studies majors, between 2011 and 2022 the number of primary history majors saw drastic change, decreasing from 90 to 22. English majors similarly decreased from 72 to 22, and philosophy majors from 19 to 11. Political science, while still remaining popular among students, also saw a sharp decrease from 113 to 64 primary majors.

From his 10-year experience as a college advisor to first-years at Duke, Goodacre believes that although students find humanities classes like those in the religious studies department intellectually stimulating, they do not seriously consider pursuing careers in them due to parental pressure or concerns about job prospects.  

“One thing that has definitely changed in the 18 years I've been at Duke is that many undergraduates have gotten much more career-focused, at least in terms of their choice of major,” Goodacre said. 

Millie Caughey, a religious studies major in the Class of 2025, agreed with this sentiment. Caughey chose her major purely out of interest but noted that her peers do not always take her major seriously and even degrade the difficulty of her degree.   

“I think people see religion or classics as ‘fun’ degrees, as minors or things you do if you’re a rich kid that is guaranteed a job,” she said. 

Like Caughey, sophomore Anna Port, who said she is the only classical civilizations major in the Class of 2025, chose her major out of interest. 

“I chose it because I've always liked archaeology. I grew up going to museums and loving Greek and Roman mythology and realized that that could actually be a career,” she explained. 

Port feels that the University does not offer the classics department and the humanities as a whole as much support as it does other departments like engineering. She believes this discourages people from wanting to pursue humanities majors.  

“I think that the buildings themselves are a testament to what Duke supports the most, and their engineering program, as good as it is, that's where all the funding goes,” Port said.

While the deans of each school in the University are ultimately responsible for making budgetary decisions, Duke could not provide The Chronicle with a breakdown of its operating revenue by academic department within each school. 

“Not all revenue is distributed down to the department level within each school,” wrote Chris Simmons, vice president for government relations, in an email to The Chronicle. 

Port cited the fact that Duke has built new engineering buildings in the past two years but neglected to update the buildings for humanities.

“There are heating problems, cockroach problems, mold problems,” she said. “It makes it hard to study in those buildings, makes it hard to enjoy being in those buildings, even though the classes and the teachers are phenomenal.” 

A shift toward STEM? 

Goodacre believes that humanities majors trading off with STEM majors may explain why four out of the top five primary majors represent STEM disciplines, and many of the least popular majors are humanities.

“There’s been a dropoff over the last 10 years in humanities majors. Causes are many and varied. One of them, obviously, is the explosion of majors in computer science,” he said. 

This finding is consistent with national trends. A report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project found that humanities enrollment in the U.S. has fallen by 17% in the past decade. 

Professors and journalists have attributed this trend to the increasing role of technology in society and the reduction in financial support for the humanities on a national, state and university level. 

Although STEM majors are generally more popular than humanities majors at Duke and at universities across the United States, the picture may be more nuanced.  

Yang explained that many students hope to use computing to advance their careers in disciplines other than computer science and often pursue double majors in non-STEM disciplines like public policy. 

Similarly, Lynch stated that Pratt students in the Class of 2023 have second majors or minors in the humanities or social sciences including history, linguistics, political science, visual arts, art, visual media studies, economics, Spanish, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and African and African American Studies.   

Since many STEM majors take humanities classes, Duke humanities classes often have high enrollment, even if students do not intend to pursue majors in the discipline. 

Goodacre noted that he feels encouraged because enrollments in religious studies classes remain robust despite the decline in majors, and the department has 24 students completing minors.

According to Blalark, the need for visas may also be a reason for the growing popularity of STEM majors.  

Blalark explained that the Department of Homeland Security changed the list of STEM-eligible Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) codes in 2022. CIP codes serve as the basis for the STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT) Extension, a program that allows F-1 students who receive STEM degrees to apply for a two-year visa extension. 

The DHS’s inclusion of more interdisciplinary majors in the CIP codes list, combined with Duke’s expansion of interdepartmental major offerings, contributed to an increase in STEM majors, as more majors are classified as STEM and students in need of visas pursue those majors. 

'Important to have this liberal arts education'

In a video called “Does Your Major Matter?”, Greg Victory, executive director of the Duke Career Center, explained why students’ choices of majors have limited impact on their career prospects. 

“In most cases, your major doesn’t shut the door on opportunities that exist in the world of work,” Victory summarized, citing examples of Duke alumni who have gone into careers unrelated to their college major. 

Although Trinity College does not have data on career outcomes, Lynch wrote in an email that about one-third of Pratt students enter the engineering industry immediately after graduation, one-third enter graduate or professional schools like engineering, medical, dental, law or business, and one-third enter other professions like finance.

Given that so many graduates pursue fields unrelated to their major, the impact of Duke’s major trends may be confined to students’ time at the University. 

Still, some members of the Duke community believe that the University should invest more heavily in the humanities, despite the increasing popularity of STEM majors. 

“Funding is a struggle for the professors I’ve worked with, and it makes a difference,” Port said. “I think if Duke wants to continue to attract professors of the same caliber, they’re going to need to step up their game in the humanities.”

Yang highlighted the value of a liberal arts education in supplementing STEM disciplines. 

“Particularly for computer science, it's vitally important to have this liberal arts education and have this more broad view of what this discipline is about,” he said. “The next generation of computer scientists, or just graduates in general, have to maintain this breadth and understand that technology is supposed to serve people.” 

Senou Kounouho contributed reporting. 

Zoe Spicer profile
Zoe Spicer | Staff Reporter

Zoe Spicer is a Trinity junior and a features managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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