Facing low enrollment and steep COVID-19 costs, colleges around the U.S. are freezing scores of undergraduate and graduate programs, many in the liberal arts.

Colleges Cut Liberal Arts Majors Due to COVID-19


  • Budget shortfalls have led to faculty furloughs and program cuts, many in the liberal arts.
  • Higher education increasingly prioritizes STEM and business over the humanities.
  • Colleges say that without billions more in federal relief, more cuts will come.
  • With fewer liberal arts programs, students may lack critical soft skills training for jobs.

Scores of colleges across the country plan to cut liberal arts programs before fall 2021. While universities with billions of dollars in endowments could "ride out the pandemic relatively unscathed," it'll be a bumpy road for most, as struggling institutions continue to cancel undergraduate majors and freeze graduate student admissions.

The humanities and social sciences face the greatest threat from COVID-19 by far. The liberal arts — a traditional pillar of higher education — have struggled to compete with more lucrative, STEM-focused degrees. Recent college moves reveal a drop in the popularity of liberal arts degrees, like English.

Humanities and social sciences programs by far face the greatest threat from COVID-19.

Many institutions, particularly small colleges, face pressure to pivot their academic offerings to meet current student demographics and job market demands, leading to a preference for technical training. Austerity measures due to COVID-19 are accelerating that trend. The University of Evansville, for example, is considering closing its philosophy and religion department.

Nationwide, so-called liberal arts colleges are eliminating liberal arts degrees, such as anthropology, political science, and music. Redrafting college programs around STEM and business offerings could fundamentally shift colleges' identities, not to mention students' futures.

The Impact of COVID-19 College Budget Cuts

Small regional colleges depend on state funding and income from tuition, but this past year witnessed a sharp reduction in both, with colleges standing to lose millions in state appropriations. As a direct consequence of the pandemic, many institutions have had to lower tuition, house fewer students on campus, and enroll fewer international students, all reducing next year's budget.

This fall, universities announced budget cuts, which included delaying both maintenance and capital projects, freezing staff salaries, and slashing top administrators' pay. Hiring freezes, furloughs, and layoffs impacted staff, faculty, and even some tenured professors.

Colleges stand to lose millions in state appropriations due to COVID-19.

Now, entire departments and majors are at risk of being axed. The University of Alaska system plans to cut 39 academic departments, including fields like chemistry and earth science, in addition to numerous liberal arts programs. Similarly, the College of Saint Rose in New York will eliminate 16 majors and six master's degrees.

Many liberal arts graduate programs have also temporarily stopped accepting new Ph.D. students. So far, over 50 doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences have decided to refrain from admitting new students for fall 2021.

As alumni mourn the loss of their degree programs, current students must decide whether to change majors — or even schools — during one of higher education's hardest years.

What Will It Take for Colleges to Recover?

The $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress in March included almost $14 billion for higher education. At least half of each school's allotment had to be given directly to students, allowing colleges to use the other half as institutional aid for patching budget holes. According to college leaders, however, the institutional aid wasn't even close to sufficient.

Now, U.S. universities are asking for at least $120 billion to help them deal with decreased funding, increased costs, and an altered education landscape. The HEROES Act — still undergoing revisions after the House passed a variation of the relief package in May and again in October — could include $27 billion for higher education.

U.S. universities are asking for at least $120 billion in federal aid.

While many institutions have announced drastic cuts during the pandemic, few have shut down entirely. Colleges are postponing big decisions as they wait on further federal relief. Many say a federal bailout must come before large-scale reopenings, but reopening could also be the answer to colleges' financial woes.

With campuses closed, colleges are making far less money. The New York Times' COVID-19 campus tracker has logged over 397,000 cases since the pandemic began, but universities have proven they can operate in person while keeping infection rates down.

Purdue University stayed open this fall and counts the semester "as a win" both academically and financially. Unlike many other colleges this year, the university has not furloughed or laid off any employees. In total, Purdue spent $50 million on providing testing and reconfiguring buildings for campus safety — a sum other, less endowed schools may not be able to foot.

Program Cuts and the Future of the Liberal Arts

The liberal arts are synonymous with college education. But a growing focus on career training, rather than training in language, rhetoric, and history, signals widespread changes to higher education.

Could moving away from the liberal arts — the disciplines that generate powerful cultural ideas — harm more than just academic departments? To English professors and philosophizing academics, the question is alarming.

As it has for many other gradual processes in contemporary higher education, such as the adoption of online learning, COVID-19 is simply adding momentum. Colleges, reeling financially from closed campuses and reduced enrollment, must offer programs that attract students. And students, facing a tougher job market, are entering college with more pragmatic priorities.

But many fail to realize that the liberal arts hones crucial soft skills, such as critical thinking, that are often vital to professional success. If the liberal arts continues to inhabit an increasingly peripheral position in academics, graduates may find they lack the skills necessary for securing the jobs and promotions they want.


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