The Root Cause of the American University Education Crisis

Nicholas Goldberg: Where have all the English majors gone?

The English department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln took a close look at its ranks last quarter. Its latest report, published this month, reveals a serious decline in the number of English majors. The figure is up only a small amount from the school’s last report in the spring of 2007, which showed 27 majors.

The U.S. News rankings reflect a general decline in the number of majors from the early 1990s to the present day.

“I can’t say that anything is to blame for our decline,” U.S. News quoted the school’s report as saying. “The number of majors in English has been relatively flat for almost a decade, and some factors that might impact the number of English majors have been the same, or even increased.”

I wrote last year in the Chronicle of Higher Ed that the reasons for the decline are two decades of neglect by the English department at Nebraska that has resulted in a pool of students who are not as well prepared to enter the academy. We need to look farther to identify the root cause of the problem, and it doesn’t seem to be a new one.

For example, the U.S. News ranking cited a recent analysis of undergraduate study and the “unmet promise of American university education,” including the decline in enrollment of students with high grades of writing and mathematics, the decrease in the number of doctoral students pursuing graduate degrees in English, and the rise in students with other majors at the expense of English.

On the other hand, one factor not often mentioned in the U.S. News rankings is the rise of dual majors, which are non-degree majors such as journalism, business, economics, and so on. These are not as likely to be in English as the other majors, and this, the U.S. News report implied, contributed to the decline in majors for English. U.S.

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