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Universities respond to failing economy, adjust curricula

Due to a struggling economy, programs such as anthropology and political science have been reduced to the point where it is difficult for students to complete majors in these areas. (credit: Travis Wolfe/Photo Staff) Due to a struggling economy, programs such as anthropology and political science have been reduced to the point where it is difficult for students to complete majors in these areas. (credit: Travis Wolfe/Photo Staff) Due to a struggling economy, programs such as anthropology and political science have been reduced to the point where it is difficult for students to complete majors in these areas. (credit: Travis Wolfe/Photo Staff) Due to a struggling economy, programs such as anthropology and political science have been reduced to the point where it is difficult for students to complete majors in these areas. (credit: Travis Wolfe/Photo Staff) Due to a struggling economy, programs such as anthropology and political science have been reduced to the point where it is difficult for students to complete majors in these areas. (credit: Travis Wolfe/Photo Staff) Due to a struggling economy, programs such as anthropology and political science have been reduced to the point where it is difficult for students to complete majors in these areas. (credit: Travis Wolfe/Photo Staff) Application increases for this year range from 11 percent to 19 percent as compared to 2007, with the largest increases seen in the Mellon College of Science and the Carnegie Institute of Technology. (credit: Maria Raffaele/Art Editor) Application increases for this year range from 11 percent to 19 percent as compared to 2007, with the largest increases seen in the Mellon College of Science and the Carnegie Institute of Technology. (credit: Maria Raffaele/Art Editor)

For much of the country, economic turmoil can be seen in the way that many universities have been forced to adjust academic curricula in response to the changing job market. Decreased enrollment in certain programs and a lack of funds have forced institutions such as the University of Louisiana and Michigan State University to eliminate majors such as philosophy, American studies, and classics, while focusing on those majors that lead directly to a job. However, despite these national trends, Carnegie Mellon has proven to be an exception by keeping its broad academic program mostly intact and helping students to find careers in a wide variety of areas.

Although many universities have seen a shift in student interest toward more technical fields that recently have had a better job market, Carnegie Mellon has seen high application volumes and enrollments in all of its colleges. According to Michael Steidel, the director of admission at Carnegie Mellon, application increases for this year range from 11 percent to 19 percent, with the largest increases seen in the Mellon College of Science and the Carnegie Institute of Technology (19 percent and 17 percent, respectively).

Part of the reason Carnegie Mellon has been able to retain a wide spectrum of programs is due to its funding sources. According to Indira Nair, the vice provost of education at Carnegie Mellon, about half of the university’s operating expenses are drawn from tuition payments while grants and monetary awards received by faculty make up another significant portion of the university’s funding. Only a very small portion of the operating budget, approximately 4.6 percent, according to Nair, is drawn from endowment funds — the funding area which has seen the largest drop in recent years.
In addition, the university’s decentralized nature allows individual academic departments to choose how they would like to cut expenses. According to Nair, in most cases, these changes do not result in the elimination of entire programs, but rather result in the removal of several elective courses. However, programs such as anthropology and political science, which already had small departments and relied on adjunct faculty members, have seen significant reductions to the point where it is now difficult to complete a major in these areas.

Although, for the most part Carnegie Mellon has managed to avoid cuts, it has still been subject to the increased pressure from students and concerned parents to deliver an education which will help graduates find a job. However, Nair stresses that in order to find the perfect career, it is not necessary for students to focus on a specific major — regardless of how tough the job market may be.

“If you can find things you like and skills you are good with, it may lead you in a brand new direction,” she said. Nair advises students to explore new areas that may spark additional interests and allow for the development of new skill sets. She stated that the contribution of these experiences can allow students to discover “what kind of thinker and writer they are and what visions they have. These are some of the skills which employers want.”

Gina Casalegno, assistant dean and interim director at the Carnegie Mellon Career Center, agreed with Nair in that these skills may help students stand out. “Getting involved in student organizations, participating in community service opportunities, being part of an athletic team, and engaging beyond the curriculum all provide real-world experiences that enhance [the student’s] candidacy for any prospective employer,” Casalegno said.

While universities have been forced to adjust curricula in response to the job market, students at Carnegie Mellon will be pleased to learn that the university has been able to retain the majority of its offerings. By keeping options open, expanding one’s focus, and taking advantage of the programs that Carnegie Mellon has to offer, it may be possible to find that dream job yet — even in an unsteady economy.