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Students select majors in wider range of disciplines

By Eric Quiñones

Princeton NJ -- More students are opting to concentrate in smaller academic departments, particularly in the humanities and natural sciences, amid efforts by the University to encourage undergraduates to pursue a broader range of intellectual opportunities.

Thirty-eight percent of sophomores have chosen to major in economics, politics, history, English and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, traditionally the five most popular academic departments, Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel reported at a faculty meeting April 25. Those departments account for 43 percent of concentrators in the junior and senior classes.

The shift toward smaller departments in the class of 2007 includes a 15 percent increase in students choosing to major in the humanities and a 7 percent rise in the natural sciences. Malkiel noted that those figures may change modestly, as 10 members of the class of 2007 have not yet selected a major and some will likely change their minds by next fall.

Departments with the largest percentage increases in majors include: classics (100 percent); music (100 percent); Slavic languages and literature (60 percent); comparative literature (57 percent); and religion (52 percent).

“What we’re trying to accomplish is a culture change — to open students’ minds to a wider set of possibilities than many of their peer predecessors had been willing to entertain...”

“What we’re trying to accomplish is a culture change — to open these students’ minds to a wider set of possibilities than many of their peer predecessors had been willing to entertain,” Malkiel said. “I count these returns as very encouraging, but a first step. We will be working at this for a long time.”

Other departments with notable gains include: art and archaeology; philosophy; French and Italian; German; astrophysical sciences; chemistry; physics; and psychology (see “By the numbers” in this issue). The increase in psychology majors among sophomores has lifted that department into the top five most popular majors, replacing English.

For more than a year, the Office of the Dean of the College has been working to educate students about the range of opportunities available in all of Princeton’s 34 academic departments. Historically, about 46 percent of Princeton students have concentrated in the five most popular majors.

As part of this redistribution initiative, Malkiel’s office is working to help smaller departments strengthen their introductory courses and create new courses, drawing on curriculum development funds provided through the 250th Anniversary Fund for Innovation in Undergraduate Education. Career Services and the residential colleges also are enhancing programming to help these departments reach out to freshmen and sophomores, including inviting upperclass students and faculty to speak in the colleges and bringing back alumni to talk about their experiences.

The Office of the Dean of the College also published a book, “Major Choices,” to highlight the opportunities available in an array of disciplines. The book, designed for freshmen and sophomores and their parents, includes first-person accounts of alumni who concentrated in smaller departments and went on to rewarding and often unexpected careers.

“The message we have been trying to give to students is to liberate their imagination and seize upon that which they’re most interested in intellectually,” Malkiel said. “You can study in any department and have an extraordinarily rewarding time here intellectually and personally, and then have a successful life and career in many different pursuits which often have absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter you study in college.”

“Princeton will be a better place intellectually and educationally if we enable our students to take advantage of the riches and treasures that all of our departments provide,” she said.