IUPUI's School of Liberal Arts faces enrollment cliff in reflection of national trends

<p>Enrollment by school at IUPUI from 2014-2023. Photo courtesy of the <a href="https://irds.iupui.edu/_documents/enrollment-management/census-report/2023%20Census%20Enrollment%20INDPLS%20Report%20Final.pdf" target="">IRDS</a>.</p>

Enrollment by school at IUPUI from 2014-2023. Photo courtesy of the IRDS.

In 2014, the overall enrollment in the School of Liberal Arts (SLA) at IUPUI was 2,565 students. In the fall semester of 2023, it was 1,537. Enrollment for the fall 2023 semester reflects a decade-old, consistent downward trend.  IUPUI faces these challenges by examining the issues and presenting potential proactive solutions that may help prevent further slippage in SLA enrollment numbers.

In her 2023 State of the University address, Indiana University President, Pamela Whitten, said that college enrollment nationwide is at a “crossroads” but believes IU has a clear path forward.

“For years, we have been warned about the looming enrollment cliff, a steep decline in the population of college-age Americans driven mainly by changing birth rates. We face questions about the value of a college degree,” Whitten said. “This is true even as economic factors demand that we nimbly respond to emerging talent needs by significantly increasing college attainment.  Balancing these challenges while upholding IU’s core values of a liberal arts education and academic integrity are complex and demanding.” 

As Whitten stated, a major reason for the decline is that fewer people have been attending college, with lower birth rates being the primary driver.  The initial downward trend began following the recession in 2008, but there still hasn’t been a dramatic steep drop, which demographers and economists say is expected to begin in 2025 and continue for a decade, CEO of Lumina Foundation Jamie Merisotis said.

 “College enrollment has been declining since 2010,” Lyss Welding of BestColleges said. “In 2021, 15.4 million students were enrolled in an undergraduate degree program. That's the lowest Fall enrollment since 2006. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) estimates that even fewer undergraduates were enrolled in spring 2023, just 14.1 million students.”  

These trends are also reflected in SLA, despite the fact that many degree requirements for majors outside of liberal arts are provided through the school. However, overall enrollment decline continues to affect the number of liberal arts majors as a whole.  

According to IUPUI’s SLA’s Resources and Planning Committee, “Total credit hours have fluctuated over the years in SLA, so if the downturn were only in this area, it might be less worrisome. Unfortunately, in the past several years, we have also seen a decline in the number of liberal arts majors.” Students with majors in the SLA  have previously accounted for IUPUI’s second-largest source of credit hours. In 2013 and 2014, liberal arts majors accounted for nearly 30% of the school’s credit hours, the 2015 report said.

“Prior to 2012, the school had enjoyed a steady upward trend in majors: from Fall 2001 to Fall 2010, total majors increased 41%, from 1,260 to 1,779. But the number leveled off in 2011 and then began a significant decline in 2012. Between Fall 2010 and Fall 2014, total majors dropped 23%,” the Resources and Planning Committee said.

Another indicator of the SLA low enrollment dilemma has been that fewer liberal arts credit hours are taken at IUPUI due to transfer credits. According to Jonas Bjork, a journalism and public relations professor who joined the IUPUI School of Journalism in 1988, students are choosing cheaper credit hour transfer options to meet lower-level credit hour requirements before enrolling in a major at IUPUI.

External factors, such as a potential lack of marketing of liberal arts studies, may also be reasons for a decrease in enrollment. In recent years, there has been an uptick in advertising IUPUI as a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and life sciences university.

Kiera Sloan, SLA student council president at IUPUI, believes that a lack of emphasis on marketing could be contributing to lower engagement with liberal arts.

“Marketing is a deep concern of mine, as I've seen really none that targets current students (not seniors) to attract them to the school,” Sloan said. “Surveys for student experience, marketing of the certifications and minors offered to enhance degrees and even club opportunities are falling short of being advertised.” 

In comments to the IU Board of Trustees on Nov. 10, 2023, professor Philip Goff, IUPUI’s Faculty Council president and co-chair of the overall IU Faculty Council, reiterated the importance of liberal arts, even within the focus on and success of STEM programs at IUPUI.

“It is good to remember amid these happy developments that IU Indy is a full-service university, not only a health-sciences and STEM campus. In just my own School of Liberal Arts sits the Ray Bradbury Center, with his papers, books, awards, even his office furniture, and the Papers of Frederick Douglass,” Goff said. “We have creative writing classes taught by award-winning professors, including a poet laureate of Indiana, Karen Kovacik. We have the largest social science religion data archive in the world, which just won a $1.6 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to accompany the $2.4 million grant from Lilly Endowment.” 

Outside of marketing, it’s important to note that economic downturns and the technology sector have impacted liberal arts class enrollments. Some industry sources believe student numbers in traditional liberal arts studies may be going into different fields to meet the demands of the current workforce. This increases the probability of higher pay rate offerings for new graduates. 

According to the Wall Street Journal, “The liberal arts are shrinking, but not dying. While it is true that there has been a constant decrease in college graduates with liberal arts degrees over the past few years, this is mostly a function of the increase in job opportunities that require degrees other than liberal arts or humanities. Globalization has given rise to new occupations in the tech sector and in multinational corporations in general.”

By the same token, as traditional teaching formats are being phased out in favor of technological advancements, IUPUI is working to entice enrollment by using modern interactive formats to teach the essential foundational tools used in liberal arts studies.  

Professors such as Thomas Davis, previous SLA IUPUI dean and religious studies professor, incorporate current video formats e.g., Netflix, to engage students in discussions that facilitate interactive learning and critical thinking skills. 

“If a student can think well, read well, write well, summarize well and present well, then they will be ready for any job,” Davis said.

As IUPUI rebuilds its liberal arts education to fit the complex, ever-changing modern digital climate, some scholars suggest not losing sight of the fact that liberal arts studies have always provided a bridge to many of the creative thoughts and innovations society experiences today. 

“This idea of ‘the nature of knowledge’ right away implicates philosophy, which is largely concerned with knowledge and thinking,” said Jeffrey Scheuer from the American Association of University Professors. “The various disciplines contain it in their DNA—partly in the form of critical thinking. Those disciplines constitute the system for organizing and understanding the known world— human beings, societies, nature—that we refer to archaically as ‘the liberal arts.’ We isolate the rubrics of natural science, social science, and humanities and their various subdisciplines, to the extent useful or necessary.” 

Liberal arts education plays an essential role in shaping individuals so that they are equipped to navigate the complexities of the world. By fostering critical thinking, creativity and empathy, liberal arts studies enhance a student’s academic experience as well as contribute to a more innovative society. It is crucial that we continue to support and invest in liberal arts, ensuring that future generations of college students have the opportunity to develop the skills and perspectives necessary to thrive in an ever-changing world.

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