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At Haverford, A Major Shift to STEM

As sophomores recently declared, choosing a major has not been easy. Many have grappled with employability, post-graduation anxiety, and the value of a Haverford education as they made their decisions.

But one thing is clear: more students are choosing computer science and other STEM majors, while fewer are opting for humanities, long considered one of Haverford’s mainstays.

Since 2013, the percentage of students majoring in natural sciences has increased by 38%, from 31% in the 2013 graduating class to 43% in the class of 2022. Conversely, the percentage majoring in humanities has decreased by the same margin, from 31% in 2013 to 19% in 2022.

“l’m scared about my future,” shares Dean Woefle ’25, who despite being passionate about history declared a computer science major, “l want financial stability and l want to be confident that l can get a good job.” 

The same trends are holding true nationwide. Driven by economic uncertainty and increased tuition, many students, like Woefle, feel they must choose majors that give them job stability and are economically lucrative to safeguard their future. This mindset has driven an uptick in the number of STEM majors at the cost of humanities majors nationwide.

“When the humanities were more popular, college was more affordable and l don’t think that’s a coincidence,” says Visiting Professor and Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow Dennis Hogan, who is teaching a course this semester on critical accounts of US higher education.

This academic year, Haverford’s tuition and fees exceed $80,000, which is more expensive than Harvard and Cornell.

“Where my education will take me and what kind of job am l going to get is something that’s been of increasing importance,” says Advising Dean and Associate Dean Theresa Tensuan.

President Wendy Raymond, who before coming to Haverford was a professor of biology at Williams College – which has also recently seen increased student enrollment in STEM – notes that this shift is not new.

“l’ve seen this before,” President Wendy Raymond says, “The evidence shows that the declines in humanities across the nation are real but l’m not worried about it being a crisis because we are so strong in the humanities at Haverford.”

Raymond clarifies that humanities departments are not shrinking despite major enrollments decreasing. Unlike other schools, Haverford’s department funding and sizes are not directly correlated with major enrollments. Other factors, such as the number of classes offered and class enrollments also indicate departments’ engagement.

This sudden student interest in STEM has led some departments to struggle with keeping small classes while also accommodating all of their students.

Haverford’s computer science department, whose number of majors has more than doubled since 2015, has had to grapple with this new increase.

“We, like almost every institution, are getting more CS majors than we can comfortably accommodate,” says Dave Wonnacott, the chair of the department and who’s been with the school for over 20 years.

Across the country, computer science departments have struggled to accommodate the rapid growth. Haverford’s neighbor Swarthmore College implemented a cap to how many computer science classes a major can take and has also created class lotteries. The University of Maryland has restricted classes to only majors.

As a result of this drastic increase, Haverford’s department has made the computer science minor and concentration on an “if space permits” basis, according to the department’s website.

“l’m not looking to draw lots of other people in at this point,” Wonnacott says. “We do our best to serve well the folks that are here.”

After saying this, Wonnacott and the department have hired three tenure-track professors to better serve the increase in majors.

ln contrast, English departments nationwide have seen a drastic decline in major enrollments. Big universities like Tufts and Boston University as well as small liberal arts colleges like Bates and Vassar have seen their English departments nearly halve, according to Nathan Heller’s recent New Yorker article.

Haverford’s number of English majors follows this trend, declining by more than 60%, with 59 majors in the 2015-16 school year to only 23 last academic year. But unlike other schools where department size is correlated to major enrollment, Haverford’s English department has recently hired new professors, like Elizabeth Kim and Alexander Millen.

Part of the reason why the number of English majors has decreased is that, as Pace University English Professor Sarah Blackwood writes in response to Heller, “many English departments have incubated other programs – including film studies, gender studies, and American studies – that are now counted separately.”

Although, just because the number of majors has decreased does not mean that interest in English has declined. “[Many students’] favorite class is arts or humanities,” Dennis Hogan says, “but they’re majoring in something completely different because they think they’re not allowed, or because they think people don’t find it practical.”

Hudson DiRe ’25 recently declared an English major, despite an internal conflict. “l tried so long to find a major that l could enjoy and that also felt more pragmatic but it felt like l was fighting against my own inertia” he says.

“l had to make a decision,” DiRe ’25 says, “Do l want to guard my future career successes, my prospects, or do l want to do something l enjoy here and now?”

Alexandra Stevenson ’25 also based her major on her interest. Having declared a history major, though, she has been met with skepticism.

“l’ve been told that choosing a history major is a mistake,” she says “because the pool of jobs for history professors is declining.”

One way students have balanced their interest in humanities with perceived job stability is through double majoring. The number of double majors has more than tripled in the past six years, going from 15 graduates in 2017 to 51 in 2022, according to numbers provided by Jim Keane, the Registrar.

Benjamin Zheng ’25, an international student from China, has declared a philosophy and economics double major to balance both his interest in philosophy and his desire for job stability. “Philosophy is something l want to do for the rest of my life,” he shares, “[But the] Economics major is chosen out of pragmaticism and out of a necessity of a job as well as my status as a Chinese citizen and on F1 visa.”

For international students like Zheng ’25, they can stay in the US for up to two years after graduation if they major in STEM or a STEM-eligible field, which includes Economics and Psychology.

Natasha Weitz, the Assistant Dean for lnternational Students, has found that international students “predominantly” choose STEM fields, observing an “inevitable connection with the additional benefit of STEM majors.”

Other double majors chose their fields because of strong interests in both, such as philosophy and math double major Hikaru Jitsukawa ’23. “l made a really intentional choice coming in to not think about the practicability and employability under the idea that l’m going to pick up skills in more than the major listed on my transcript,” they say.

Now as graduation approaches, Jitsukawa ’23 is anxious about their future. “These specific skills that l got learning pure math here, l have a hard time seeing them applied anywhere but in the academy,” they worry. After graduation, they will pursue a doctoral program in mathematics.

As Haverford’s largest class just declared their majors, we will see if current student enrollment trends will continue.

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