Is Your Sociology Program Thriving? Consider the Changing Popularity of Your Major

This is a guest Post by Stephen Sweet at Ithaca College on his Teaching Sociology article, “How Departments Can Respond to the Changing Popularity of the Sociology Major,” which is  based on his 2015 Hans O. Mauksch Address.

Sociology is losing a popularity contest. True, there are now more sociology majors but there are also more college students. With this in mind, consider that sociology had more than a 4 percent share of bachelor degree recipients in 1970, but today it has declined to less than a 2 percent share. Compare that to the discipline of psychology, which had a 5 percent share in 1970 and today has grown to a 6 percent share.

Part of the problem for the discipline might be at the macro level, reflecting cultural transformations that impact the perceived value of sociology. But problems – and solutions – can be also found at the local level in individual departments. My analysis, published in Teaching Sociology, shows that it is common for departments to expand, contract, and remain constant in their undergraduate sociology program graduation numbers. In other words, national level trends do not neatly map onto local trends.

The programs that seem most apt to expand had vision to identify ways to improve program popularity and the will to put those visions into action. Here are some practical steps I learned by talking with representatives of these growth programs:

  1. Track program enrollment and make trends (especially declining trends) a front burner concern for your department.
  2. Expand or maintain expansive access to gateway courses such as Introduction to Sociology so that students have ample opportunity to discover sociology before they discover (and commit to) some alternative major.
  3. Ease constraints on program completion without sacrificing program quality.
  4. Enhance the visibility of your program and its relevance to real-world interests and concerns.

Sociology has much more to offer students than our declining popularity suggests. Focusing on local concerns might be a critical element needed to reverse this trend.

Please contribute your thoughts to the conversation.

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