Initiative under way to educate students about range of majors
By Ruth Stevens
Princeton NJ -- Undergraduates at Princeton can choose from among 34 depart- ments when deciding on a major. However, nearly half of today's juniors and seniors concentrate in just five departments.
An initiative to analyze this lopsided representation and to make students more aware of the range of options available to them is now under way.
"This summer, President Tilghman asked me to identify one thing we might do that would have the biggest impact in improving the quality of undergraduate education," said Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel. "I had an immediate response: Work to redistribute concentrators, so that fewer students are clustered in a handful of large departments."
In a column for the winter 2004 Parents News and in a presentation at the Feb. 2 faculty meeting, Malkiel explained her rationale and proposed some strategies. Currently, 46 percent of juniors and seniors major in these departments (in order of popularity): politics, history, eco-nomics, English and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. That leaves 54 percent of the students concentrating in the other 29 departments.
"These patterns are not unique to Princeton, and it is not hard to understand why they occur," Malkiel said. "The large departments offer engaging courses that many students want to take. Their programs of study address important matters of contemporary interest. And they can accom- modate a wide range of undergraduates -- students with sophisticated, highly focused intellectual interests as well as students who are seeking the broadest, most flexible liberal arts concentration."
According to Malkiel, the goal of the initiative is not to convince students who really want to major in the popular departments to change their minds. "We are targeting two other groups of students," she said. "The first group consists of those who major in the large departments not because they want to, but because they think they have to -- that is, who choose the large departments for extraneous reasons instead of pursuing studies in their desired fields. The second group is made up of students who don't know what they want to study and end up in the large departments by default. Our goal is to help all students to take the best advantage of the many intellectual opportunities here at Princeton -- to help every undergraduate find the major that most closely matches his or her intellectual interests."
At the faculty meeting, Tilghman noted the importance of addressing this situation now because of the pending 500-student increase in undergraduates approved by the trustees. "This increase could break the back of some departments that are oversubscribed and create a deficit in others," she said.
Malkiel explained that getting students to major in some of the smaller departments is crucial to enhancing a close relationship between students and faculty as well as students and their fellow concentrators. In addition, a diversity of academic interests and educational experiences can only benefit the intellectual fabric of the University, she said.
Finally, Malkiel said support for a broader scope of choices would provide better information to students as they explore their options. Students tell administrators that considerations other than intellectual passion often weigh more heavily in their decisions on majors: They tend to pursue majors that are perceived as more likely to open doors to graduate and professional school or jobs. "[Students] are not discontented with their concentrations, but when they are asked what they would have majored in, given the chance to make the choice again, their answers range widely across the departments," Malkiel said.
At the faculty meeting, Malkiel presented data collected by Jed Marsh, vice provost for institutional research, showing what fields students said they wanted to pursue when they applied to Princeton and what they actually did pursue. Overall, she said, 70 percent of students changed their minds about a major after arriving on campus.
"That's fine -- we encourage that," Malkiel said. "But too many changed their minds in the same direction." She noted that enrollment in the humanities stayed constant, while enrollment in the social sciences increased with an outflow from the natural sciences. Movement in engineering varied by department.
"We want to enable more students to follow their intellectual passions -- to study what they love, not what they see other students studying, not what they think will be the safest, most practical choice to further their future pursuits," Malkiel said. "The purpose of a Princeton education is to stretch the mind and challenge the imagination -- to teach students to think and reason and analyze and document and prove, to cast a critical eye on conventional wisdom, to make sense of evidence, to read a text with care and critical insight, to conceptualize and solve problems, to express themselves clearly and convincingly on paper and in oral exchange. These things can be accomplished in many fields of study, whether they are obviously practical, or whether their 'relevance' is more obscure."
Strategies for change
Malkiel said that she has had extensive conversations with University committees, faculty members and trustees, and has developed a number of strategies that fall into three categories: curriculum, information and recruitment.
The curricular strategies include helping smaller departments to strengthen their introductory courses, where student interest often is reinforced or discouraged early on. "For the foreseeable future, we will be devoting our curriculum development funds to the support of initiatives in smaller departments to devise new courses or renovate existing courses to appeal more effectively to beginning students," Malkiel said.
Other curricular strategies involve making students more aware of the multiple routes into each major; and making clearer to students what the program of study is really like in the smaller departments.
Information strategies include educating students about studies in the smaller departments by arranging for upperclass students and faculty to speak in the residential colleges, by bringing back alumni to talk about their experiences and by distributing a new publication profiling alumni who have majored in smaller departments.
Malkiel discussed, for example, introducing to students "the East Asian studies major who heads an investment bank in the Northwest" or "the religion major who works in one of the nation's premier schools of public health." "In short, we want to make plain that the smaller departments, like the larger ones, provide routes to wonderfully fulfilling and engaging lives and careers," she said.
In terms of recruitment, Malkiel said she will be meeting this winter and spring with the leadership in the smaller departments to discuss ways of reaching out to their natural constituencies. "For example, students who experience the excitement of field work in the Sierras or in Bermuda in freshman seminars in geosciences are a natural constituency for that department," she said.
Malkiel noted that the residential colleges have asked A.B. freshmen to identify the three departments they are considering as potential majors. Each of the smaller departments will receive lists of the students who have indicated an interest in them and will be encouraged to communicate with those students.
At the faculty meeting, the discussion following Malkiel's presentation included suggestions to put the best faculty members at the head of introductory courses and to encourage smaller departments to offer more freshman seminars. Faculty members also acknowledged the strong influence of the "informal advising system of students" and expressed concern about delivering quality advising in larger departments. Tilghman asked faculty members to work with Malkiel as they come up with ways to contribute to the effort.
"We do not expect to see dramatic changes in patterns of concentration, but we can provide some number of students the information and encouragement to make choices that more nearly match their deepest intellectual interests," Malkiel said. "If we succeed over the next several years in changing even 10 percent of the decisions students make, I will consider that we have made a meaningful step toward improving undergraduate education at Princeton."