Enrollment Trends

Author: Ed Cohen

Too many students are choosing the same academic paths. What’s a college to do?

It’s not often you hear an administrator canonize a flow chart, even at a Catholic school.

But talk to Carolyn Woo, dean of the Mendoza College of Business, about enrollment trends and you’re likely to hear her invoke a saint’s name in reference to a particular info-graphic.

Prepared by the University’s Institutional Research office, the chart tracks transfers of Notre Dame undergraduates from one college to another.

“We call that one Saint Sebastian,” she says, “because of all the arrows going into us.”

She means that like Sebastian, a third-century Roman soldier traditionally depicted as pincushioned with arrows (according to legend he was healed after being pierced by several), all the arrows on the transfer chart point in the business college’s direction. That’s because more students transfer into business than transfer out of the college and into the colleges of Science, Engineering or Arts and Letters or the School of Architecture.

Five years ago, that net influx helped produce what is believed to be an all-time record for business enrollment at Notre Dame of 1,869, according to Institutional Research. To put the total in perspective, it meant that about one out of every three sophomores, juniors and seniors was enrolled in business. (Incoming first-year students don’t enroll in specific colleges.)

This phenomenon troubled some University administrators, in part because it put Notre Dame far out of step with its peers. Most other highly selective colleges and universities don’t even teach undergraduate courses in business. The field is often looked down upon by academics as being too close to vocational training. Woo’s rebuttal is that the Mendoza curriculum goes well beyond spreadsheets and business plans to explore such intellectual subtleties as ethics and leadership.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the boom in business study has abated since 2000, but it remains one of several enrollment trends the University is trying to manage. With a light touch, if possible. Other concerns include a prolonged decline in engineering enrollment, both nationally and at Notre Dame, and an even longer-term move by students away from the liberal arts in favor of fields perceived as more practical.

In a college administrator’s dreams, students would sort themselves out evenly among the scores of available majors. Or they would at least enroll in the various fields in the same percentages year after year. That way no college or department would ever be left with over- or under-utilized capacity in terms of faculty, classrooms and other resources.

Such perfect predictability exists nowhere, of course. But Notre Dame faces an additional, self-imposed challenge. Some universities establish filters or “gates” to admission, meaning students must declare their intended major on their application for admission. The admissions office can then pick and choose among applicants to assemble a class that’s both well-qualified and evenly dispersed.

Suspecting this to be the case, many high school seniors, when filling out an application, will write in what they imagine to be the least popular major at a school in hopes of improving their chances of getting in, one current Notre Dame student confides.

This wouldn’t be an effective strategy at Notre Dame because the University has never had admission gates. Its philosophy has always been to evaluate applicants individually according to their overall records, says Dan Saracino, assistant provost and director of admissions. The ND application does ask about intended area of study, but the answer isn’t binding and has no bearing on admission decisions, he says.

Saracino says gates would be “against the culture” of Notre Dame because the University believes in letting students explore different fields and figure out where their passions and abilities lie. One aim of the University’s First Year of Studies program, mandatory for all freshmen, is to expose students to a wide array of subjects. Not until near the end of first year are students required to pick a major and enroll in a college.

Notre Dame’s two largest colleges by far in terms of undergraduate enrollment are Arts and Letters (45 percent of non-freshman enrollment) and Business (25 percent). They’re followed distantly by Science (15), Engineering (11) and the School of Architecture (3). The percentages have remained roughly the same for the past 15 years. The most noticeable change has been a drop in engineering enrollment.

Engineering enrollment

The heyday for engineering came in the late 1950s, when the launch of Sputnik sparked renewed interest in engineering, especially aerospace. Back then engineering students made up more than 30 percent of Notre Dame’s enrollment. As recently as 1985, the college enrolled more than a thousand students, but in 2004-05 the figure stood at 734.

Nationally, undergraduate engineering enrollment declined from a 1983 peak of about 441,000 students to about 361,000 by 1999, an 18 percent drop, according to statistics reported by the American Association of Engineering Societies. Enrollment rebounded to about 421,000 in 2002. According to an article last year in the Wall Street Journal, the United States, which in 1975 ranked third worldwide in the number of undergraduates studying engineering and natural sciences, has now fallen to 17th place.

John Uhran, associate dean of engineering, says increased investment in defense during the Reagan administration probably helped spur the enrollment spike in the mid-’80s. Since then, “there has been a slow decline in enrollment in the college,” he says.

To counter that trend, both engineering and the College of Science, which has faced a similar but less-pronounced slide in enrollment, have stepped up their marketing efforts. Snazzy new promotional publications and elaborate receptions and open houses on campus for admitted students are all part of the recruitment campaign. Representatives of the engineering college went so far as to visit Catholic high schools in California’s Silicon Valley last September looking for potential applicants.

The efforts may be paying off. Engineering enrollment has risen by nearly 100 since the year 2000. The science college proudly points to a report from First Year of Studies showing that 25 percent of freshmen entering in fall 2004 said they intended to major in science, up from 20 percent two years earlier.

But the problem for both colleges has been retention. A report that looked at freshmen who entered in 1998 found that 27 percent who said they intended to major in science transferred to Arts and Letters, and 22 percent of engineering intents switched to business. The latter migration is so familiar to students, one senior says, that a joke around campus is that when someone says they’re majoring in engineering, you say, “Oh, you mean pre-business?”

One reason science and engineering have trouble attracting and retaining students is that the programs are perceived as too difficult and time-consuming.

Regina Muscarello, a junior whose three-headed major of philosophy, English and Spanish hardly qualifies her as a slacker, says, “Many students want to be able to dabble in other non-related courses, but the engineering curriculum is rather set and stringent.” Students also think the workload won’t leave time for a social life or extracurricular activities.

Several years ago the engineering college revamped its undergraduate program with an eye toward boosting retention. The most obvious difference involved a retooled Introduction to Engineering Systems course spanning fall and spring semesters of freshman year. Designed to replace a course that focused on computer programming, the new course features guest speakers, hands-on learning and small-group sessions on creative problem-solving. In recent years it’s become common to see members of this class out on the South Quad in fair weather catapulting softballs and comparing distances traveled against their predictions.

The college also condensed a three-semester physics sequence into two semesters and a two-semester chemistry course into one. The freed-up second chemistry semester was given over to a new course focusing on biochemistry. The idea is to prepare engineering majors to explore the burgeoning field of biotechnology, Uhran says.

The changes appear to be helping. In 2000 about 55 percent of freshman engineering intents stayed with the college at least into their sophomore years. By 2004 the rate had improved to better than 70 percent. The college also gave special attention to retaining women. Only about 45 percent of female students were making it to sophomore year five years ago. Today their retention rate is on a par with that of the college as a whole, according to the college’s statistics.

Still, only about half of students who at enrollment say they intend to major in science or engineering actually graduate from either college, according to the most recent reports from Institutional Research.

Concern for grades

Students say one reason is concern for grades. Almost all students arrive at Notre Dame with stellar high-school grade-point averages, and they typically expect to keep making A’s as they eye possible graduate school opportunities. (In recent years about a third of Notre Dame seniors surveyed have said they planned to further their education.) Some will transfer out of a major if they receive what they deem to be unsatisfactory marks. They’re afraid of damaging their GPA beyond recovery.

Engineering, in particular, is seen as a killer major.

“A’s in engineering are few and far between,” observes one sophomore, “and that causes extreme stress in students who are used to being at the top of their respective classes. . . . [S]tudents want to be part of something in which they excel.”

Mitchell Wayne, associate dean of the College of Science, is less charitable, saying he thinks too many of today’s students “aren’t willing to struggle for a while.”

But grade phobia doesn’t explain all transfers out of science and engineering. Sophomore Keri Mikuska, originally a science major, says she left not because the classes were too hard but because she missed reading great literature and reflecting on its meaning in essays. “Looking back, I didn’t realize that a science major took four science classes and one non-departmental elective for almost every semester. I thought that it would be more integrated, but it wasn’t.”

She switched to medieval studies and English. Like Wayne, though, she bemoans the find-the-easy-major mentality of many students.

“So many students today seem to be choosing their major, something that will potentially affect the rest of their lives, on the criterion of the level of difficulty,” she says.

If perceived difficulty scares students away from engineering and science (architecture, too; Bond Hall, the school’s HQ, is known among students as the “only co-ed dorm on campus” because Arkies have so much work they sometimes end up sleeping there) the opposite is true about business. Most students imagine the business curriculum to be easier than that of other colleges.

Reality turns out to be a little different. Junior Covington Doan started out as an engineering intent freshman year, switched to pre-med as a sophomore and is now enrolled in the business college’s management information systems track. He says he hasn’t found the course work to be easy in any sense. “I actually find myself doing more work in business than I did as a pre-med.”

The other common perception is that a Notre Dame business diploma is a ticket to a high-paying job. This notion holds particular sway among parents.

Finance major Patricia Alvarez tells of a friend of hers who enrolled as a business major then switched to psychology, an Arts and Letters major. Her parents weren’t happy with the decision and convinced her to switch back. She did, Alvarez says, but was miserable. She eventually came to an accommodation with her parents. She would double-major in marketing and psychology. The change required her to take summer courses and overload her schedule in the fall and spring of junior year, Alvarez says.

“She loves psychology but is still bitter [about having to take] business.”

Mark Roche, dean of the Arts and Letters college, says the attitude of that student’s parents is common among parents of Notre Dame students. He theorizes that it’s a remnant of Catholic immigrant culture.

“The immigrants thought that the main purpose of college was to get professional training to get a job,” he says.

Many still think that way, of course, and not just Catholic parents. Since many parents are footing the bill for their child’s education, and many come from business backgrounds, they often look for a tangible return on investment.

Part of Roche’s challenge since becoming dean in 1997 has been to convince students and parents of the practicality of a traditional liberal arts education. The college has even produced a DVD featuring interviews with faculty and alumni who talk about the intrinsic value of a liberal arts education. It also describes how study in the liberal arts sharpens analytical and other skills valuable in any profession and appreciated by employers. The message seems to be getting through, as the Arts & Letters college posted record enrollment in 2004-05 of nearly 3,000 students.

In a future DVD, Roche might consider featuring _business _ major Alvarez talking about the trip she took with the Notre Dame Finance Club last fall to New York City. The group met with representatives of General Electric and its NBC subsidiary to talk about internship opportunities. She says company representatives told them it didn’t matter what their major was because G.E. puts all hires through extensive training for their specific jobs.

“Basically they said to major in something you like and enjoy,” Alvarez says.

Business enrollment climbs

Woo, dean of the business college since 1997, says she thinks one reason business enrollment has taken off is because even students eyeing a path other than up the corporate ladder realize they need some knowledge of business principles.

That was the case with sophomore Shannon Reabe, who had intended to study theology and peace studies but switched to accounting and peace studies. Reabe says she hopes to work for a not-for-profit organization someday and knows such groups need people who can manage finances. She’s quick to add, though, that she still believes a strong liberal arts background is essential.

Whatever the reason for business’s popularity, the flood of students presented a major management problem for Mendoza administrators. Woo points out that the college was being asked to teach almost a third of all Notre Dame upperclassmen with one-seventh of the University’s faculty. Plus professors were expected to teach about 800 graduate students and conduct extensive research.

One obvious solution would have been to hire more faculty. But Woo says it’s expensive to recruit faculty with the teaching and research abilities the college demands. Plus she didn’t want to risk disrupting the culture of “collaboration and collegiality” she says exists within college at its traditional size. “It will change our DNA if we grow too big.”

The only alternative was to reduce the number of students. The college set a long-term enrollment target of 1,200—a reduction of more than a third from the record high of five years ago. The question is how to get there.

Woo says many universities seeking to limit enrollment in a popular program do so by raising the minimum grade-point average required to enter or by boosting the number and type of prerequisite courses. The business college rejected those options, the dean says, because they ran counter to Notre Dame’s philosophy of giving students the freedom to pursue all opportunities.

The one concrete step the college and University have taken is to cease accepting business transfer students from other universities. Undergraduates can still transfer to Notre Dame up to the start of their junior year but can’t enroll in business unless they arrive before the start of sophomore year. The college had been enrolling about 50 transfer students a year in the years leading up to the change, a Mendoza official says.

In hopes of further suppressing enrollment, Woo says she has actually begun encouraging students to consider options other than business. “Here I am a business school dean,” she marvels, “and I’m talking about the benefits of other majors.”

Whatever the reason, undergraduate enrollment in business has fallen every year since 2000 to 1,537 this past fall semester, according to the Institutional Research office. Woo says she expects the number to stabilize around 1,500.

Ed Cohen is an assistant editor of this magazine.