Language Majors – The Devil’s in the Details

Enrollments in U.S. colleges and universities flourished from 1940 through 2010. For the past decade and a half, many colleges have struggled with adjusting their fixed cost, campus-based business model to declining enrollments as well as prospective students and their families focused on the relative value of earning a four-year degree.

Some adjustments have been implemented over a period of years. In the case of large state-funded universities facing declines in budget allocations, cutting expenses has required a deep analysis of cutting programs and other expenses.

West Virginia University is one of the most recent state institutions to publicize its projected deficits and recommended actions to reduce those deficits. I wrote about an NYU professor’s critique of West Virginia’s decision to cut its language programs to save $5.8 million in annual costs.

I noted in my article that WVU’s bachelor’s degree language completers were less than .5% of all bachelor’s degree completers in a year. I also noted that NYU had the same number of bachelor’s degree completers (18) as WVU although they had four times that number in annual graduate student completers.

I decided to look at language program completers at a selected sample of colleges and universities using data from College Navigator. Data from WVU is displayed in the College Navigator table below. As you can see, the language with the largest number of completers is Spanish with seven. It’s not a model of educational scale and efficiency.

West Virginia University

West Virginia University language program completers

Since Mr. Weatherby, the professor authoring the NYT opinion essay, is an associate professor of German at NYU, I opted to look at NYU’s completers. The 18 bachelor’s degree completers comprised .3% of NYU’s bachelor’s degree completers. In the table below, you can see its largest number of specific language completers were two, majoring in French. Spanish master’s students comprised the largest number of master’s completers at 12.

New York University

New York University language program completers

Since Professor Weatherby lamented the loss of a liberal arts education at public institutions thanks to state and political decisions to eliminate foreign language programs, I opted to look at the number of language completers at an Ivy Plus institution, Duke University. In 2021-2022, Duke’s foreign languages, literature, and linguistics departments issued 12 bachelor’s degrees out of 1,850 bachelor’s degrees granted (.6%). With four completers, Spanish was the most popular language.

Duke University

Duke University language program completers

Middlebury College is known for its summer language immersion programs that enroll approximately 1,500 students every summer. I opted to see how many Middlebury students major in foreign languages. Based on the data in the table below, Middlebury’s 34 bachelor’s degree completers (5.2% of all bachelor’s degree completers) are the largest as a percentage of undergraduate enrollments thus far.

Middlebury College

Middlebury College language program completers

I looked at a few other large state universities to see if their total language completers were comparable to WVU. I selected the University of Maryland at College Park since Maryland is a neighboring state to West Virginia with a wealthier and better funded higher education system. Maryland’s 86 bachelor’s degree completers exceeded Middlebury’s and WVU’s but only represented 1% of all bachelor’s degree completers. Spanish was the most popular language with 26 completers.

University of Maryland

University of Maryland language program completers

I then reviewed Texas A&M, one of the largest universities in the U.S. and the largest in Texas. The 32 bachelor’s degree completers at A&M represented .2% of its annual bachelor’s degree recipients. Spanish students comprised 25 of the 32 completers.

Texas A&M – College Station

Texas A&M language program completers

Arizona State University has the largest number of campus-based students in the U.S. with more than 80,000. The foreign languages department’s 93 bachelor’s degree completers were the largest observed but comprised only .6% of annual bachelor’s degree recipients. Spanish students comprised the largest group with 28 completers.

Arizona State University

Arizona State University language program completers

I opted to look further west and selected UCLA as my next institution. In the table below, you can see that more than half of its 201 bachelor’s degree completers (2% of overall bachelor’s degree completers) were linguistics majors. Spanish students (27) represented the largest number of specific language completers.

University of California, Los Angeles

UCLA language program completers

Noting that none of the universities in my selected group were in the Mid-West, I opted to review The Ohio State University. As you can see in the table below, Spanish (27 completers) was the largest group of completers out of 140 total. The bachelor’s degree language completers represented 1.2% of OSU’s 2021-2022 graduates.

Ohio State University

Ohio State University language program completers

Thinking that another West coast institution might be worth reviewing, I selected the University of Washington at Seattle. As displayed in the table below, 162 bachelor’s degree completers represented 1.9% of all completers in 2021-2022. Japanese language completers comprised the largest group with 26 recipients.

University of Washington, Seattle

University of Washington, Seattle language program completers

My findings are summarized in the table below. I selected 10 institutions whose aggregate undergraduate enrollments total 325,989. In the 2021-2022 year, 79,815 bachelor’s degree students completed their degrees. Only 796 of these 79,815 completers were language completers representing slightly less than 1% of all completers.

Summary of university language program completers

“The Devil’s in the details” is a frequently quoted phrase. From my review, it appears that the only college or university in my selected group operating a language department with a reasonable return on investment is Middlebury College. Middlebury’s financial contribution does not stem from its 34 bachelor’s completers but rather from its 1,500 summer language immersion students. Some of the other departments may have a positive contribution margin once graduate students are included but that is an analysis that I did not attempt.

I thought about the needs assessment process that most colleges and universities conduct when they propose to establish a new degree. I wonder how many review long-established degree programs with the same rigor that they apply to new degrees. As colleges and universities review and analyze their expenses in the years ahead, it will not surprise me to see more institutions review enrollments and recommend closing their language departments like WVU has.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence