Enrollment in political science departments increase at CSU, nationwide

Blake O'Brien

When President Donald Trump goes somewhere, so does the attention. So, it’s no surprise that enrollment in political science programs has skyrocketed since the 2016 elections.

Colorado State University’s Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Effectiveness reports the number of primary political science majors at CSU increased from 271 to 413 between Fall 2014 and Fall 2018. Eighty-nine percent of this increase occurred between Fall 2016 and this semester. Students who are double-majoring select one primary major, which means their second major is not counted in this enrollment data.

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“It’s exciting,” said Michele Betsill, a professor and chair of the department of political science. “Our goal is to help people to engage civically and civilly in the public arena. So, the more people we can get coming through our doors, the better.”

The numbers are staggering compared to other CSU departments. Over the same time period that the department of political science increased its number of primary majors by 142 students, total enrollment in the College of Liberal Arts decreased by 102.

“We’re filling classes,” Betsill said. “Our upper division classes are capped at 40 (students), and we’re to the point where classes are full and there’s often waitlists.”

Though the department hasn’t added any additional professors – except for those replacing faculty who’ve left – more sections of courses have been added to accommodate a growing number of students.

And these increases aren’t just at CSU. Political science departments at colleges across the nation are seeing an influx of new students.

According to a survey conducted by the American Political Science Association, 48 percent of political science departments increased enrollment between 2017 and 2018, compared to only 32 percent between 2015 and 2016.

Of the departments surveyed, 40.9 percent attributed the increase to greater political interest, the 2016 election and/or President Trump, according to the APSA.

Eric Fattor, a political science professor at CSU, said the election of President Trump sprung some people into action.

“To use a famous phrase attributed to Gandhi, ‘You must be the change you wish to see,’” Fattor said. “I think people realized that wasn’t just something you put at the end of the email. You actually have to live that.”

This was true both for people in favor and opposed to President Trump – those inspired by his raw, unpolished rhetoric and those who vehemently disagree with it. And it’s not like President Trump to shy away from the spotlight, Fattor said.

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“He is somebody who likes to have all the attention,” he said. “He feeds off of the partisanship. He likes to be in the media spotlight.”

But, according to CSU professors, President Trump and the 2016 elections aren’t solely responsible for the increase in enrollment throughout political science departments.

Fattor said young people recognize the modern political system is not working for them in terms of finding jobs, paying student loans, buying a house, etc.

“Millennials are drawn to the study of political science for these reasons, and Trump may be as much a symptom of this as a stimulus for it,” Fattor said.

There are also specific, departmental reasons for the increase of political science students at CSU and nationwide. Betsill said the political science department at CSU started changing things about five years ago when there was a dip in enrollment. Among other things, the department recently completed the Straayer Center for Public Service Leadership and reinvented the Political Science Club.

According to the APSA survey, 72.5 percent of the departments reported that the increases were in part due to institutional or departmental factors.

“The stars aligned in a particular way that students were drawn to political science, and then they saw that we were doing things within the department that were very exciting,” Betsill said.

Blake O’Brien can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @BTweetsOB.