University News

Hispanic studies sees declining enrollments

University aims to boost interest with study abroad programs, more flexible requirements

Contributing Writer
Friday, September 26, 2014

Undergraduate enrollment in Hispanic studies courses has declined almost every year for the last decade, dropping from 1,024 students in the 2003-04 academic year to 682 students in the 2012-13 academic year, the most recent year for which official data is available, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

Enrollments in Hispanic studies saw the most severe drop in the 2009-10 school year, when enrollments declined to 819 from 934 the previous year.

Over the same 10-year period, most other language departments saw declines in course enrollments as well, though few as sharp as Hispanic studies. Only the East Asian studies and Portuguese and Brazilian studies departments had course enrollments rise from 2003-04 to 2012-13.

News of the decline in Hispanic studies course enrollments came as a surprise to some.

“Spanish is a very useful language, and I thought the number of students learning Spanish would be growing,” said Nikko Pasanen ’17, a student in HISP 0600: “Advanced Spanish II,” Brown’s most advanced Spanish language class.

Department administrators and professors said they generally knew about the drop, though they did not know the details.

“I was aware that there was a decline, but I hadn’t seen the numbers” going back the full decade, said Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies Laura Bass, the department’s chair. Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies Julia Chang also said she was vaguely aware of the trend.

Several professor and administrators cited the recession of 2008-09 as one possible reason for the decline: The worsening economy pushed students to choose subjects they thought would increase their chances of landing a job.

“From 2008 on, there was a lot of pressure on students to choose practical courses,” said Deputy Dean of the College Chris Dennis. “Sometimes the pressure is more from the families than the kids.”

Dennis attributed part of the broader decline in humanities enrollments to increased interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Since many of these concentrations have up to 22 requirements, it is much harder to double concentrate, Dennis said.

Language classes also take up significant time, as many meet every day.

The University has added two new study abroad programs in Havana and at the University of Cantabria in Spain. Dennis said he sees the new programs as a way to combine the humanities and STEM fields.

“These new programs will allow students to take engineering classes while also learning the language,” Dennis said.

More students have taken language classes before coming to Brown, Bass said, which may explain declining enrollment in the introductory Spanish classes.

“More and more students are coming in with more language experience in Spanish,” she said, adding that the department nearly had to add a section of HISP 0500: “Advanced Spanish I.”

Fluctuations in Hispanic studies enrollment numbers in the past few years may have also been caused by faculty turnover and some faculty members going on leave, Dennis said. But several new faculty members have joined in the past year, allowing the department to offer a wider variety of courses, and the department’s leaders said they feel optimistic about its future.

Dennis and Bass said enrollment in the 2013-14 school year increased to over 730, though official numbers have not been finalized or released.

Recent changes that make the concentration more flexible in an effort to meet student interests may partially explain the higher number, Bass said.

“We are now seeing science concentrators come in and choosing to do Hispanic studies as a second concentration. They will take a neuroscience class to meet requirements but then take a Hispanic Studies class on the side as their fun class,” Chang said.