Dying and thriving majors at Kent State



Alicia Balog

Students enrolled in the nursing major at Kent State have almost doubled in the last 10 years. In the same time frame, just one of three remains enrolled in its art education program.

While students ideally want to follow their passions, economic changes have played an increasing role in students’ career paths in the past decade, say students and administrators alike.

“Obviously, nursing is one of the hot majors in the country,” said Dave Garcia, associate vice president in enrollment services. “Why? Because you can get jobs, and I don’t mean ‘just jobs.’ I mean good-paying jobs. When you have a career that is in demand that pays well, obviously that’s going to generate a lot of interest.”

Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine — fields commonly grouped as STEMM — have generally increased as some humanities and arts majors have seen a loss, according to an analysis of university enrollment data.Garcia said the enrollment changes in certain majors relate to changes in the economy as people consider the value of a college degree.

“In the media, there are always these lists — ‘The Top 10 Majors that Pay’ — and they list them,” he said. “Students and parents, they look at these lists and say, ‘Well [my major] is not on there, so let’s not go in that direction.’”

Tim Chandler, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said there is a correlation between the job market and enrollment in majors, with increasing number of students pursuing jobs in health fields.

“I think there has been a bigger emphasis on professional fields where there are obvious job possibilities,” Chandler said. “Those in the classic liberal arts — philosophy, history, political science — probably have continued. But they are not areas where there is an obvious career path.”

Chandler said that in majors focused on specific careers, it is difficult balancing liberal education with training for a long-term career.

“The temptation is to train people for the first job,” Chandler said. “So they have the skills they need to get into that field, and the expectation is they’ll continue to learn and go back for further education beyond that.”

Chandler said some parents pressure students into pursuing majors that guarantee a stable job, rather than pursuing passions.

“It’s difficult to make a living as an artist,” he said. “So why would it not make more sense — from some parents’ point of view — to go and do a degree in accounting? Then do your acting or your art as an avocation outside of your work.”

Some fields are seeing a boost from changing technology and media, with enrollment in Communication Studies nearly tripling in the last decade from 126 to 572 undergraduate students since 2002, according to the data.

Paul Haridakis, director of the School of Communication Studies, said people see communication as an important field because the world is experiencing a revolution with social media and now employers are looking for communication skills as one of the top qualities of new employees.

“We’ve always known communication is important,” he said. “But to see the world take note, to see the growth in things like social media that has really made people recognize the importance of communication is really very satisfying.”

Haridakis said with the improvements in technology, the number of communication majors and jobs will continue to grow.

“When you look at all that we have available, we’re producing more writing today than we ever have, we’re producing more audio today than we ever have, we’re producing more video today than we ever have,” Haridakis said.

However, the media also glamorize certain professions, said Mary Haley, assistant dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. Television shows such as “Project Runway” or “Law and Order” spark interest in students who may not consider what it takes to pursue those majors.

“Students don’t realize the training needed to do [forensics] — the chemistry background, the psychology background,” Haley said. “Forensics is very different. It’s multidisciplinary. It looks like fun, but they don’t realize what is required to do this well, in a professional setting.”

This can lead to increases for departments and schools in which students are unprepared for the amount of work. Instead, Haley said, students should take classes to see their interests and find the “hidden gems” — the majors they are passionate about but may not know about until they try it.

Yet some majors students are passionate about, such as the arts, have decreased because of the job opportunities available. Art education enrollment has dwindled from 306 students in 2002 to 109 this fall.

Linda Hoeptner-Poling, assistant professor of art education, said schools are not hiring new art teachers and cutting programs. Therefore, graduates are concerned with finding jobs.

“It’s always the first question, always — ‘What are the chances of my kid finding a job?’” she said. “And I always answer it the same way: ‘With persistence, they will find a job.’”

Hoeptner-Poling said professors prepare art education majors as much as they can but the students may have to relocate to find those jobs in areas affected by funding cuts for the arts.

Associate art professor Robin Vande Zande said the “No Child Left Behind” Act, passed in 2003, was a major factor.

“Certain courses — such as math, language arts and science — are stressed, while others are left out,” Vande Zande said, because art is not an easy course to assess.

She said art education could soon integrate aspects of design education — how to create and make usable, artistic items — to help increase interest and enrollment.

“So they get to see and understand more about what design objects versus a fine arts object,” she said. “In doing this, we think that it’s going to interest people into coming into our field.”

Stephanie Shaffer, sophomore art education major, said she will continue to pursue her goal of being an art teacher despite acknowledging cuts in art programs.

“If you want it enough, then you’ll fight for the job you want,” she said.

Students like Shaffer pursue what they love despite economic obstacles, such as lack of jobs. And, despite the data, Chandler said those who pursue their passions are often more successful than those who pursue jobs.

“It may be that [pursuing a stable career] makes sense in terms of making a living,” Chandler said. “But does it make sense in terms of making a life?”

Contact Alicia Balog at [email protected].