Are French Classes Under Threat at American Universities?

According to the latest report from the Modern Language Association, which conducts an annual survey on the status of language learning in higher education in America, 129 French programs were discontinued between 2013 and 2016. Karl Cogard, education attaché at the embassy of France in Washington D.C., offers his take on this worrying situation.
Harvard University.

France-Amérique: The Modern Language Association’s report states that 651 programs across all languages were discontinued. How do you explain such a nosedive for foreign language classes?

Karl Cogard: Budget cuts linked to the 2008 financial crisis led to the closure of many departments. Language classes are often the least popular and therefore less profitable, and so were among the first to be shut down by universities. Certain politicians also declared that taxpayers should not have to finance university programs that did not lead directly to what they termed as useful employment. This is how Eastern Kentucky University lost 13 million dollars in public subsidies which led to the removal of nine programs, including French.

In both the United States and France, the “profitability” of subjects is at the heart of the political debate…

Higher education, even in public universities, is becoming increasingly expensive. Students are no longer able to study humanities and social science just to improve their minds; they are now looking for a return on investment in their education, and take classes in business or engineering. They are hoping to finish their studies and find a job that will enable them to pay back their debts. In this context, it is very hard for humanities subjects to compete.

At the same time, dual-language French-English programs are increasingly popular. What are the reasons for this paradox?

French departments are not in the same context as dual language schools. These latter offer a range of cognitive benefits, higher academic scores, and a cultural openness that are just not available in universities, which are offering a more traditional education. This style of teaching humanities is no longer attractive, whereas immersion schools are more in sync with our modern times and the concerns of both parents and students.

What is the solution for saving French departments?

Not all students are looking to specialize in 17th-century French literature. It is therefore up to universities to diversify their offering. This is the example upheld by the highly popular Professional French Master’s Program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. This program combines French with classes in communications strategy, public health, marketing, and public relations. In an effort to welcome future students from the first immersion classes, who are currently in high school, the Utah’s public universities are developing language programs for professionals, including classes in business, law, and tourism.

Is this a way of showing that French can also offer a professional advantage?

This is the current fashionable trend. The embassy of France in the United States helps universities looking to open a professional French program by organizing workshops for professors. This year there will be three courses led by the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry at UCLA in California, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and the University of Florida in Gainesville. A professional French course can help universities to maintain their language departments. Community colleges are also getting involved and a school in Maryland is thinking about developing a program in French and healthcare.