College students are flocking to science and math, and leaving behind the social sciences, leading the University of Washington to cut teaching positions in history, political science and other fields.

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Undergraduate students are abandoning the social sciences in favor of math and science majors — a shift that’s leading the University of Washington’s largest college to cut about 25 teaching-assistant jobs in history, political science, sociology and geography for the next academic year.

Those departments, along with anthropology, have seen enrollment drop between 4 and 45 percent in recent years, said Robert Stacey, dean of the UW’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Meanwhile, enrollment is growing in the chemistry, math, biology, statistics and physics departments, a trend that’s likely to continue and, perhaps, accelerate, Stacey said. Many students also are enrolling in other colleges to study computer science, engineering and public health.

Educators have been encouraging students to study fields such as science, math, engineering and technology because that’s where the jobs are. The shift in majors shows students are listening, Stacey said.

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But that’s bad news for those graduate students who work as teaching assistants in the social sciences. Teaching assistants, known as TAs, are Ph.D. candidates who assist in lecture classes or teach courses on their own, and make $21,000 to $26,000 for nine months of teaching while working on their doctoral degrees. The College of Arts and Sciences has about 1,500 TAs, Stacey said.

To draw attention to the cuts, teaching assistants and supporters are planning to march through the Seattle campus Thursday, starting at 10 a.m. on the Quad.

Caterina Rost, a political-science teaching assistant who is expecting her first child in October, has been told her TA job is likely to end by next fall. She is concerned that she’ll lose more than a job that pays the bills — she’ll lose her health care in September, a month before the baby is due. “It’s very terrible timing,” she said via email.

Rost came here from Germany six years ago, and because of limitations on her visa, she’s only allowed to work at the UW. Rost has one fallback — her husband is an American citizen, and they’re working on completing the immigration paperwork that would allow her to apply for jobs outside of the university. “But honestly, I don’t know who would hire me at eight months pregnant,” she said.

Stacey said the UW must cut jobs because the university’s revenue is not increasing — tuition for in-state undergraduates will decrease next year, yet expenses are going up 3 to 4 percent a year because of salary increases, inflation and health-care costs. That’s left the College of Arts and Sciences with a $500,000 shortfall next year, he said.

Over the long term, the college is likely to need to cut $14 million out of its overall budget because of the shift in student interests. While enrollments in sciences, math and statistics — all departments in the College of Arts and Sciences — are growing, there’s also a large number of students majoring in computer science, engineering and public health, which are housed in other colleges.

“We’re losing market share, and as we lose market share, we lose tuition dollars,” said Stacey, who added that some of the Arts and Sciences departments most affected by the enrollment drops are reducing the number of new graduate students they take in.

Michael Reagan, a graduate student in the history department, says he doesn’t understand why the college didn’t start planning for the cuts well in advance, so as to mitigate the impact to students. Reagan has been told his TA position is not funded next year.

“If the potential cuts were known — why didn’t the provost’s office take steps to ensure that there would be funds available to keep TAs in place and look for budget reductions elsewhere?” Reagan said via email. He described graduate students as being “at the heart of the mission of the university” because they provide a significant amount of undergraduate instruction, and play a critical role in research.

Stacey said most Ph.D. candidates are guaranteed five years of teaching-assistant work, at the UW and other state universities, because it should take five years to complete a Ph.D. The students losing TA posts have been at the UW for five years, he said.

Filiz Kahraman, a Ph.D. candidate in the political-science department, said it’s very difficult to complete an advanced degree in five years because of the research required to finish a dissertation.

Kahraman, who is from Turkey, has been away from Seattle for the past two years doing field research in Turkey and the United Kingdom for her dissertation on labor rights and labor activism. She had five years of guaranteed funding when she started at the UW, but needs a sixth year to complete her work. She has just learned she’s likely to lose her TA position.

She’s also discovered that rent has skyrocketed in Seattle since she left. “I’m honestly in a very difficult situation,” she said.

Stacey said the university has to be careful with its money.

“Ultimately, it’s the undergraduates who pay for all of this — it’s their tuition dollars that pay for these, and we have to be good stewards of their money,” Stacey said.

 

This story, originally published on June 1, was corrected on June 2. The University of Washington has a major in public health, not global health.