Mary Garhart fell in love with reading in middle school, devouring Christopher Paolini’s fantasy novel “Eragon” and the “Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Then she moved to classics from Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities,” and Charlotte Brontë, “Jane Eyre.” She had a yen for writing. What’s more, there were literary influences in her family: a grandmother with a master’s degree in English, a grandfather who taught English.
So when Garhart entered the University of Maryland in fall 2011, she had no doubt about her field of study. “English,” she said, “is the obvious major.”
This has been true for generations of college students drawn to the poetry, drama, novels and other works of a language that has become a global medium since its origins centuries ago in the British Isles.
But for many, English is not so obvious anymore.
Like several disciplines in the humanities, English has faced hard questions in recent years. The Great Recession of 2008-09 led a growing number of students, urged by parents who want a “return” on their tuition investment, to pick majors they perceived as more likely to enhance their career prospects. This preoccupation with an economic rationale for going to college had been building for many years. But the economic downturn and its aftermath compounded job worries.
Numbers from College Park, home of the flagship public university of Maryland, tell a story that echoes in one way or another at schools across the country.
In fall 2009, there were 792 English majors among U-Md. undergraduates. That was nearly equal the total of computer science majors, 796. Five years later the computer science total had more than doubled, to 1,730. The total for English had fallen 39 percent, to 483.
English was hardly alone in decline. Down at least a quarter in that span were major totals for anthropology, art history, general biology and history.
At the University of Virginia, the English major count fell 18 percent from 2009 to 2013. History was down 31 percent; philosophy, 40 percent. Computer science was up 108 percent.
Nationwide about 50,000 students a year earn bachelor’s degrees in English, a total little changed in this century even as the number of degrees conferred in all subjects has risen nearly 50 percent. Students these days choose from an ever-expanding academic menu, with specialized majors in business, health, engineering, security, technology and other fields.
Fluctuations in demand are common. One topic might get hot as another cools. Arabic studies, introduced at College Park in 2008, has developed a solid niche. Interest in American studies has slid. The journalism major with a “multiplatform” focus has taken off as more consumers rely on digital news sources. The journalism major focused on magazines is being phased out.
Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts & Humanities at U-Md. since 2011, said there are often “ebbs and flows” in majors. But she acknowledged that her college, home to English, history and other core departments, must ramp up recruiting. Dill said she wants to “bust the myths” students might hold about the value of English and certain other majors in the job market.
“The approaches that we use in teaching the humanities and the arts … do give students the skills that employers are looking for,” Dill said. “And they also give students skills that are transferable to a lot of different kinds of work settings and situations.” Employers, she said, “need people who have broader capabilities to be creative and thoughtful.”
Across the country, humanities majors are under siege as politicians have questioned their economic value.
In January 2014, President Obama talked up the virtues of manufacturing at the expense of art history. “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” he said. “Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history.” (Obama later apologized for the remark.)
Last month, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a possible Republican presidential candidate, lamented in a speech that many students take on debt to obtain degrees that won’t lead to a job. “So you can decide whether it’s worth borrowing $40,000 to be a Greek philosophy major,” Rubio said. “Because the market for Greek philosophers is tight.”
There is much debate about the value of different degrees. It takes some graduates a while to reach their full earning potential. Others pursue lower-paying careers in public service that offer intangible benefits. There are powerful (and countless) arguments for why learning is valuable for its own sake. But many students and parents measure value in salaries.
Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, analyzing 2013 census data, found that college graduates ages 25 to 59 earned a median annual wage of $61,000. English majors earned a median annual wage of $53,000. Computer science majors earned $83,000.
The English department at College Park, recognizing that it must market itself, relies on an economic pitch. A leaflet in its office — “So, you’re thinking about majoring in English?” — tells prospective students: “Some of our English majors go on to teach, but many others become editors, writers, lawyers, businesswomen or researchers. Some English majors even become doctors!”
Garhart, 21, a senior from Anne Arundel County, wants to explore book publishing. An English major from the start, she also is minoring in creative writing. To boost her career options, she decided to pursue a second major in business management. After a nerve-racking process that included taking prerequisite classes in accounting, economics and statistics; gathering recommendations; and applying to the university’s Smith School of Business, she got in. She will need five years to finish her studies . Tuition and fees for Maryland residents, not counting books, room and board, total more than $9,500 a year.
Does she enjoy business classes as much as she does the Novel in America to 1914? Or Literature of London, which she took one spring?
“I don’t think I’ll ever love any other course as much as English,” Garhart said.
English professors are also keen to attract students who might not see themselves as literature buffs. This spring they offered a $100 prize to the student who could make the best promotional video on “what makes English the best major at UMD.”
Department chairman William A. Cohen said the faculty has also begun sending a letter to every student who earns an A in an introductory course and is not an English major.
“I am writing to you because I noticed that you did exceptionally well last semester” in class, the letter states, “and I would encourage you to consider English as a major (or a second major).” The letter says the major requires “just 36 credits” — of at least 120 required for a bachelor’s degree — “and is flexible enough to fit in easily with your other academic pursuits.”
Amanda Bailey, an associate professor who is a Shakespeare specialist, said that when students make an astute comment in class, she often pulls them aside for a quick word of encouragement if they have not already declared in English. “You really have a knack for this,” she will say. “What’s your major?”
Typically, she emphasizes the “career viability” of the English major. “It doesn’t mean you have to be an English teacher,” she said. Medical, business and law schools are options. Good writers are in high demand in science, too.
The department’s recruiting efforts go beyond outreach. Its course catalogue includes more offerings with crossover appeal for the tech crowd: Literature in a Wired World; Writing in the Wireless World; Science, Gender and Classic Science Fiction; Literature of Science and Technology; and more. There is also broad cultural diversity — with many courses, for example, in literature from the African diaspora — as well as depth in the foundational texts: Chaucer, Shakespeare and the rest.
Will all of this work? Will English rebound at College Park?
Kent Cartwright, a veteran English professor and former department chairman, urged a shift in thinking at the highest levels of a university proud of its prowess in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “We’re so completely STEM-driven,” Cartwright said. The administration, he said, is “full of people with goodwill” toward the humanities. “But they see the well-being of the university in a certain kind of way. We’re just not part of it.”
Wallace D. Loh, president of U-Md. since 2010, disagreed. He said he likes to think of the university as a flower. “That flower has a long and very sturdy ‘STEM,’ ” Loh said. “But at the top of that STEM, there’s a flower, a blossom. And that flower is the humanities.” He said he walks around campus “with that metaphor of the flower in my head all the time. We have to nurture that blossom.”
Loh said the university is committed to maintaining a strong faculty in the humanities regardless of ups and downs in the number of majors. However, he said, if he had money to expand the faculty, and if someone proposed adding another expert in Victorian literature, “my answer is, well, not at this time.”
What about expanding faculty in computer science? Loh, worried that class sizes are nearing “intolerable” levels, said he would be more inclined to give that a green light.
Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. To comment on this story, e-mail email@example.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.