Traditional Language Programs Have Declined Steadily Over Decades

February 14, 2011

Can you say "decline" in French, German, or Italian? Undergraduate majors in German and the Romance languages have been slowly vanishing from the American higher-education landscape since before many of today's faculty members were born, according to a new analysis by four scholars at the University of California at Riverside.

The paper, which has been accepted for publication in The Journal of Higher Education, mines federal data to identify degree programs that significantly declined between 1971 and 2006.

The researchers wanted to examine the factors that cause the erosion of academic fields. Do fields decline primarily because long-established colleges drop them, or because new colleges choose not to offer them? Does a college's size or prestige matter, or whether it is public or private, or how many competing colleges are in its region?

Those are all interesting questions. But most readers' first reaction to the paper's raw data will probably be: My goodness, things look dire for European-language programs.

In the 1970-71 academic year, Romance-language majors were offered by close to 76 percent of American four-year colleges. But by 2005-6, only about 59 percent offered them. German programs saw a similar decline: In 1970-71, about 44 percent of colleges offered the major, but in 2005-6, just under 27 percent did so. Leaving aside "secretarial science," those are by far the largest relative declines discovered by the Riverside scholars.

And those numbers, of course, do not cover the effects of the recent recession. The last year, for example, has seen proposals to do away with certain European-language majors at a number of institutions, including the State University of New York at Albany, the University of Central Missouri, and the University of North Carolina system.

"We were just looking for patterns, and we certainly don't mean to endorse the decision to drop any of these programs," said the paper's lead author, Steven Brint, in an interview on Monday. Mr. Brint is associate dean for student academic affairs and professor of sociology at Riverside.

A Mixed Picture

The decline in European-language degree programs does not necessarily signal a general collapse in foreign-language study at American colleges. Spanish programs have been largely immune from the declines in other Romance languages. Many institutions have added majors in Chinese and Arabic. The overall number of bachelor's degrees awarded in "foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics" increased by roughly 30 percent between 2001 and 2008, according to federal statistics.

But the reduction in many traditional language programs is still troubling to some advocates of the humanities.

The Riverside paper's findings are unsurprising but still disturbing, Timothy G. Reagan, a professor of education at Central Connecticut State University and the author of several books on foreign-language study, said in an e-mail message to The Chronicle.

Mr. Reagan said he feared that proponents of foreign-language education have focused too much on the purported career benefits of becoming bilingual. That line of defense, he said, misses some of the most important values in language education.

Proponents, he said, should emphasize "the benefits of foreign-language study itself, rather than focus on the benefits of true bilingualism that will be achieved by only a small percentage of our students. I believe that there are incredibly powerful arguments for foreign-language study, and that these arguments fit beautifully into the core defenses for humanities and liberal-arts education writ large."

The Path to Decline

Meanwhile, what did Mr. Brint and his co-authors learn about the forces that shape declines in academic fields?

In general, as they expected, they found that smaller and less-prestigious institutions were more likely than their bigger and more-prestigious counterparts to drop degree programs. That pattern was more pronounced among private colleges than among public institutions. At public institutions, the authors speculated, low-enrollment programs may have been relatively insulated from market forces. (But that might be changing quickly in this recession, Mr. Brint said in the interview.)

Colleges with a strong liberal-arts tradition were especially unlikely to eliminate programs in the humanities, and large doctoral universities were especially unlikely to drop science programs. Those patterns were expected, but the authors write that they were surprised by the rate at which smaller, less-prestigious doctoral-granting universities dropped traditional arts and sciences fields.

The authors found that some fields, including mathematics and history, experienced relative declines only because most new colleges have not included them. At colleges that had been established by 1970, those fields have held their own. But other fields, including German, Romance languages, and classics, have been dropped by many institutions that once offered them.

For their analysis, Mr. Brint and his colleagues looked at federal data for all American four-year colleges, excluding specialized colleges with narrow focuses in specific fields such as business or the performing arts. There were 1,263 such colleges in 1970-71 and 1,416 in 2005-6.

In determining whether a degree program was offered at a college, the authors looked at whether any students actually graduated with such a degree. "Ghost" degrees that lingered in a college's course catalog did not count. If no students graduated in a certain field in two consecutive years at the beginning or the end of the study period, the authors deemed that the program did not exist at that college.

The new paper is titled "Declining Academic Fields in U.S. Four-Year Colleges and Universities, 1970-2006." Mr. Brint's co-authors are Kristopher Proctor, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University; Kerry Mulligan and Matthew B. Rotondi, who are graduate students in sociology at Riverside; and Robert A. Hanneman, a professor of sociology at Riverside.