Recently, Marymount–a small Catholic university in Arlington, Virginia–has been in the news for a draconian plan to eliminate a number of majors, ostensibly to better meet student demand. I recently learned the university leadership has been circulating one of my charts to justify the decision, so I thought I’d chime in on the context a bit. My understanding of the situation, primarily informed by the coverage in ARLNow, is this seems like bad plan, so I thought I’d take a quick look at the university’s situation.
Not knowing much about Marymount, I thought I’d first check how low the major numbers actually are. Here’s the list of all the majors that Marymount reported to IPEDS from 2017-2021. Majors proposed for removal are in blue. The largest group are Nursing majors; the next largest are general business, a category that has stagnated. The two largest majors in what used to be called the “Liberal Arts” are psychology and biology; arrows show change from the 2005-2015 period to the 2017-2021 period.
A few things jump out at me here.
- The proposed cut majors are doing perfectly well. The annual numbers in history have declined only about 15%; that’s significantly better than most history programs. The sociology program, slated for removal, has actually grown.
- If you want to cut a major at Marymount, you should cut Liberal Arts and Sciences/Liberal Studies. It has declined greatly, it provides no benefit over any specific course of study, and it’s where a number of the students that would have majored in the majors slated for removal are likely to go. This does them no good; general liberal arts degrees tend to be a characteristic of community colleges looking to set students up to complete a major inside of two years if they move to a four-year institution, but for a four-year degree they’re just dead weight.
The first point is especially important–there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly low about these numbers. Universities routinely offer majors that graduate fewer than 10 students a year. Marymount itself has several other ones. Let’s compare to some peers. Marymount offered 3,223 degrees from 2016-2021. Let’s make a group of other schools that are private, offer MAs but not many PhDs (that is, are Carnegie class Masters 1 and Masters 2), and granted between 3000 and 3500 degrees over the same period.
Looking at this, it’s clear that Marymount’s major numbers are not in any way remarkable; making cuts of these majors in the context of national trends is a wildly speculative gamble on the university’s character that other comparable places aren’t doing. I don’t know the specific finances, but from a positioning standpoint, Marymount is making a peculiar choice. The school in this bucket with the weakest humanities programs is the evangelical Oral Roberts University; for a Catholic school to aspire to supplant them is uninspiring, to say the least.