Columbia enrollment trends fluctuate by major

By Lauren Kelly

Though undergraduate enrollment at Columbia has increased by 21 percent since 2004, some majors are growing at a much faster rate than the overall population.

The fastest growing major at Columbia is Cultural Studies, which was introduced to the school six years ago after students expressed interest in the program. Sixty students were enrolled in the major in 2004, and by fall 2008 there were 125, a growth of 108 percent over the past four years.

“To see a major growing at this pace is quite interesting because the major is so academically demanding and theoretically rigorous,” said Ann Gunkel, director of the Cultural Studies Department.

Cultural Studies focuses on theory and methodology for cultural critique and analysis, and Gunkel said it is a reading intensive major from start to finish.

Because the major is growing so fast, the department is struggling to keep enough faculty and staff to serve the growing student body.

“We’re quite desperate to hire more faculty members,” Gunkel said. “Staffing and hiring is probably our biggest concern to keep up with student demand.”

The department will have a new full-time professor starting fall 2009.

Although the program is theory intensive, it also provides students with opportunities to take action in their fields.

“A lot of people have come because it’s the only program in North America that combines theoretical work with internship opportunities and with praxis,” Gunkel said. “It’s highly engaged with everyday life and culture.”

She said most students go on to work for nonprofit organizations or go to graduate school after they complete the program.

Because of this, she said some people “would think this would be a major that would shrink in difficult social and economic times, because it doesn’t seem ‘job oriented.’ It’s very interesting that a ‘non-practical major’ would be the one that grows fastest in tough times. It’s not non-practical. It’s about something bigger. There’s a heightened sense of not only the value, but of the dire necessity for cultural critique.”

Only two areas of study at Columbia have seen a decrease in enrollment over the past four years: radio and poetry.

In 2004, there were 63 poetry majors, and in fall 2008 there were 57. Though it’s not a large decrease, it is one of the only departments not growing.

“I’d love to have us get [enrollment a] little higher; if we could get into 70 or 80, that would be great,” said Tony Trigilio, English Department faculty member who manages most of the Poetry Department. “But we’ve never envisioned this as a very large major. I don’t think we could sustain a large growth. We don’t see it as something that should be really large.”

Columbia was the first school in the nation to offer poetry as a major that wasn’t through a creative writing department, attracting students from across the nation.

“We do a ton of national advertising in poetry related magazines and professional journals as well as local publications,”

Trigilio said. “One thing I’ve noticed in our enrollment trends is that we’re getting more students from outside of Chicago.”

Because of the evolving digital state of the world, some arts are experiencing decline, while others are expanding.

“We’ve probably lost some students because of the multimedia environment, but we’ve also gained some, too,” Trigilio said. “I think in the poetry program we’ve benefited from the multimedia world we’re living in because students are able to see their favorite poets on YouTube. There are so many online poetry magazines. There’s a huge proliferation of text-based web zines that publish poetry.”

The second fastest growing department at Columbia is Music, in which enrollment has increased by 75 percent since 2004. The Music Department is working to create several new degrees and concentrations for students.

New potential areas of study include contemporary urban and pop music, which was introduced this year, and music composition for the screen, a Masters of Fine Arts degree, which is working in conjunction with the Film, Dance and Theater departments. The new majors emphasize collaboration with other academic departments.

In contemporary urban and pop music, students “also study music business and a little bit of audio techniques,” said Richard Dunscomb, chair of the Music Department. “We’re working with arts, entertainment and media management in the degree. We’re also working with audio arts and acoustics.”

Dunscomb said other potential concentrations are in the works, including black music research, music education and music therapy.

“We have expanded the enrollment not only numerically, but also in a quality sense,” Dunscomb said. “Columbia is becoming a first-choice school, instead of a second or even third choice.”

He said students in the program have higher GPAs than before, are more musically trained and are becoming serious students who are more prepared.

“We’re beginning to be recognized throughout the music field,” Dunscomb said. “Applications are up 40 percent over last year.”

Despite the current economic situation facing the country, completed applications being submitted to Columbia are continuing to grow.

Deb McGrath, associate vice president in the Office of Enrollment Management, said in a College Council meeting on March 6 that completed applications for freshman students are up 14 percent from last year.

Although that doesn’t mean the students are committed to attending Columbia this fall, it shows more students are applying and considering attending the college.

If the trends continue in line with the past four-year growth of 21 percent, Columbia could see more new undergraduate students on campus this fall.