Increase In Pomona STEM Majors Prompts Concern From Humanities, Social Sciences

Graphic by Dominic Frempong

Science, technology, engineering, and math degrees have been all the rage at Pomona College the past several years. In 2005, STEM degrees made up less than 30 percent of all majors completed, and the arts and humanities was the most popular division at roughly 30 percent, according to Pomona’s Office of Institutional Research.

By 2017, STEM degrees accounted for 41 percent of all majors completed, while the arts and humanities had fallen to 21 percent. These percentages do not reflect Pomona’s recent decision to change economics’ classification to STEM.

These numbers exceed those at many of Pomona’s peer schools around the country. In 2017, 25 percent of degrees conferred at Amherst were in STEM fields, 28 percent at Swarthmore, and 34 percent at Williams, according to the common data set reports from those schools.

Some of Pomona’s admissions policies help contribute to the high percentage. Starting in 2015, Pomona has admitted a Posse cohort from Miami every year open only to students interested in STEM fields.

Some humanities and social science professors said they are concerned about some of the underlying trends that may be influencing the spike in STEM interest.

David Menefee-Libey, a Pomona politics professor and member of the steering committee for the public policy analysis program, theorized that rising economic inequality and the unpredictability of the labor market encourages students to identify majors and career paths that ensure financial stability.

Other professors agreed.

“This is a world in which so much of it is defined by ‘How much money am I willing to make?’ rather than ‘What would make me happy?’” classics department chair and professor Kenneth Wolf said.

Wolf said he feels the focus on major and marketability contrast with what Pomona represents.

“I think people need to understand that Pomona is not a trade school,” he said. “Every discipline is to be studied for the love of the discipline. We don’t have applied programs. We have pure disciplines. A place where students can come in, follow their hearts, and graduate and find their place in the world.”

However, some Pomona STEM majors said they study these fields because of their interest in the subject.

Math major Chris Donnay PO ’18 said that even if all degrees were equally marketable, he would “absolutely” still be majoring in math.

“I’m planning to go to grad school to get a Ph.D. in math. I seem to hate all the kinds of math that appear marketable and love the more academic kind,” he said.

Wolf said he is concerned that students think humanities degrees will not lead them to profitable careers.

“If it’s simply a shift in interest, then I don’t have a problem with it, but if people think they’re not going to get anywhere with a degree like history or English, that is simply not true,” he said.

Some STEM students have taken future career prospects into consideration when choosing to major in STEM, but said this was because their career goals are based in their interests in certain fields, rather than with an eye for profits.

“The environment is a very important issue to me” said Cade Niles PO ’20, who is majoring in biology and geology. “Although politics intrigued me, I just felt like I needed to have some empirical scientific expertise as well, so even if I was in the political arena I could back-up what I said with facts. Having taken political science courses, they feel very much theoretical, in ways I don’t think I could apply.”

Wolf said he is grateful for Dean of the College Audrey Bilger’s efforts to de-emphasize the importance of students’ specific majors and focus on liberal arts as a whole.

“We see Pomona graduates going on to meaningful careers after pursuing a wide range of majors, from the humanities to social sciences to STEM, and a recent study by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences also shows humanities majors finding satisfying careers, and — even more important — satisfaction in the quality of their lives,” Bilger wrote in an email to TSL.

Economics professor Eleanor Brown said it’s likely that some portion of the student body perceives economics and STEM fields to be clearer paths to high-paying jobs. However, she added that there are many benefits to receiving an economics degree at a liberal arts school over a business school.

“Economics is about incentive structures and is really useful in a lot of policy contexts,” Brown said. “Many of the best applications of economics are not business-related. In general, liberal arts students are more creative, critical thinkers and are better policy problem solvers.”

Pomona has recognized students’ interest in STEM and provided some STEM departments with significant resources, according to students.

“Pomona provides ample support for the math department,” Donnay said. “We got a beautiful new building. I always feel like if I need some supplies I can go to the supply closet in the math department and they’ll have what I need. … The main reason I majored in math is because the department has so many resources in place to develop and make a community.”

Even though math is one of the most popular majors at Pomona, Donnay said he has not had problems registering for the classes he wants, and all of his classes have had fewer than 30 students.

Niles said it was not difficult to get the classes he wanted in biology and geology, and the class sizes are fine as well.

High interest has, however, created resource shortages in other STEM areas, particularly computer science. Pomona computer science majors have had difficulty registering for courses due to a faculty shortage in the department.

Some students in the humanities lamented what they perceive as a lack of resources in their departments.

“It’s kind of crazy that media studies, English, and women’s studies are all in the same building,” said Skye Mitchell PO ’20, an English and media studies double major. “I think media studies can be frustrating because it is an intercollegiate major, and it can be difficult to get the classes you want because non-majors take them as electives and compete for spots. Sometimes I feel there aren’t enough courses available.”

According to data up to spring 2013, provided by Menefee-Libey, humanities courses have the highest total enrollment, despite being one of the least popular divisions in which to major.

Changes in popularity have not been evenly distributed within each division.

“The politics major is oversubscribed and understaffed,” said professor Susan McWilliams, chair of the politics department.

Some social science and humanities professors said high STEM enrollments are due in part to a culture that encourages students to focus on STEM subjects before college.

“Part of it is the admission process and who gets admitted,” Wolf said. “I wonder if our high school system is one where math gets over-taught and writing gets under-taught because it is harder to grade essays with a larger crowd. If that’s the case, then a student in high school who excels in math will have gone the furthest and get into places like Pomona. Then the question is whether they will step off the math path.”

Others view the trend as a temporary change in interests.

“We’re in a historical moment where there’s a lot of attention to the so-called STEM fields,” Menefee-Libey said. “We saw this in the 1950s and 1960s and we’re seeing it again. So, some of it is cyclical.”