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Enrollments in Foreign Languages Continue to Fall: Italian Drops by 20%

The latest Modern Language Association report's snapshot of fall 2016 enrollments in U.S. higher ed is alarming

Fall language enrollments and percentage change in United States institutions of higher ed (% change 2013-2016) Source: MLA Enrollments Preliminary Report, Feb. 2018

Lower enrollments continue to be the national trend for all languages, except Japanese and Korean. Italian's sharp decline also changes its rank from 5th to 6th most commonly taught language. Don't abandon all hope, ye who teach Italian! The good news is that there are countless four-year institutions experiencing growth and/or stable enrollments in Italian: these are the programs we should investigate further

Foreign language enrollments in American higher education have seen yet another drop as reported by the Modern Language Association in their most recent publication. The 9.2% loss in enrollments from fall 2013 to fall 2016 indicates these results, as the authors of the report state: “are the beginning of a trend, rather than a blip” when we also take into account the 6.2% decline reported in the previous survey results 2009-2013.

Almost all of the most commonly taught foreign languages in the U.S. are experiencing decreased enrollments, except for Japanese and Korean, which have seen growing numbers since 2013. The top ten foreign languages are Spanish, French, American Sign Language, German, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, Arabic, Latin, Russian. With Italian dipping to sixth place, previously in fifth, and with a sharp decline of enrollments (20.1%) in two- and four-year institutions, the situation is critical. Globally, Italian is the fourth most studied language (2.3 million students worldwide), and Italy is the number one non-English speaking destination for American students studying abroad. Why does this not translate to higher enrollments in U.S. institutions?

The Case of Italian

The MLA data has worrisome implications for Italian, at both two- and four-year institutions. In this analysis of the data, we will consider only four-year institutions. Enrollments have dropped from 60,031 to 49,295 (17.9%), and the number of institutions offering Italian courses has decreased from 509 to 479 (5.9%). Additionally, Italian has the lowest percentage of enrollments at the advanced level, a ratio of 10:1, that is, for every ten students who begin to study Italian, only one will continue with advanced level Italian courses.

If we decide, however, to look at the data more carefully, all is not lost. Italian is still viable across the country and program growth and/or stability is a reality despite the data results.

Change in number of institutions offering Italian (2013-2016) Green=increase; Blue=unchanged; Red=decrease; White=not offered

The map reflects the data of institutions per state. Nationally, there are 30 fewer institutions offering Italian since 2013, however, in nine states – Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah – more institutions are offering Italian. Of the remaining states with institutions that reported data, 21 states have remained unchanged and 16 states have fewer institutions teaching Italian. The fact that these turbulent times for foreign languages has produced new programs in various institutions is a positive sign.

A closer look at the institutions will provide further interpretation of the data and can be used as a point of departure in identifying models to emulate. A ranking of the Italian programs in four-year institutions according to enrollment numbers is as follows:

  1. St. John’s University (Jamaica, NY) – 907
  2. New York University – 675
  3. Syracuse University – 632
  4. University of Georgia – 593
  5. Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY – 581
  6. University of Connecticut, Storrs – 581
  7. Pennsylvania State University, University Park – 576
  8. Montclair State University – 539
  9. Hunter College, CUNY – 513
  10. Loyola University Chicago – 503

In this top ten ranking, the four institutions in bold have had increased enrollments: St. John’s maintains first place in the ranking and continued to grow its numbers by 4.1%; FIT has increased enrollments by 22.5%; University of Connecticut (Storrs) by 14.3%; and Hunter College by 6.5%. Montclair State and Loyal University have experienced the greatest decreases (24.6% and 31.8% respectively) in this ranking.

Evidently, the size of a program is not necessarily synonymous with its strength. Italian has numerous programs at institutions across the nation that are modest in size and have demonstrated strong growth or stability over the last three MLA reports. A data drill down of the enrollments in Italian reveal that there are some 61 institutions that have steady or growing numbers between 2009 and 2016. They include: the University of Dallas (Texas) with steady enrollments ranging from 153 to 150;  Gonzaga University in Washington state with 236 (an increase of 24.9%); the University of California, Davis with 466 (an increase of 102.6%); and the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee from 118 to 380 (an increase of 222%).

Why are these programs growing and/or stable while others are sharply declining? How do these programs defy the national trend? These are the questions we should be asking. If our goal is to save Italian, we need to use the MLA data to explore steady and growing programs, and not be totally consumed by falling enrollments and possible explanations as to why Italian has dropped by 20%.

“We can all come up with various and sundry reasons why this is happening—comments Anthony Tamburri, Dean of the Calandra Italian American Institute—The crisis at hand requires we dispense with the verbiage and we all become active in the saving of Italian at the college level.”

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