Humanities Majors Declining at Four-Year Colleges, Increasing at Community Colleges

Those who work in academia will likely not find this surprising: according to a new study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities in 2015 was down 5% from the previous year, and 9.5% from “the recent high-water mark” in 2012. And it gets worse: compared with other degrees, humanities majors in 2015 made up a smaller share than ever, comprising just under 12% of degrees awarded. Of the specific humanities in decline, English and History were hit the hardest, with Communication gaining a bit where they lost. Inside Higher Ed offers a thorough analysis of the details.

For me, both a former English major and a former Academic Advisor to freshmen, this news hurts, but it is expected. Those of us who have worked with young students have witnessed the trend: parental pressure, combined with financial worries due to the 2008 recession and the rising cost of college tuition, compel students to select majors in fields they deem “practical”: engineering, health, business. I’ve seen students who profess to hate math and economics major in Finance because they want to “make money.” I’ve seen students major in Medical Imaging, not even aware of what it is, because they’ve heard health fields are “where the jobs are.” I’ve had my heart broken by students who light up when talking about their courses in philosophy, history, or literature, but decide that a Management degree is the best use of their time and money. And unfortunately, on more occasions than I’d like, I’ve seen older students, finishing their sophomore year with failing grades and no motivation because they’ve chosen a major that doesn’t suit them.

I’ve thought quite a bit about this issue. At the university where I worked as an advisor, the business school had more students than it knew what to do with. The Nursing school became so competitive that students needed a near-perfect GPA to even be waitlisted. There were too many students funneling into too-few majors, many of them not particularly interested in the subject matter. This is not to say these students are wrong for wanting to be practical. The real world is terrifying, and they’re correct in thinking that it’s difficult to get a job after graduation that pays a decent enough salary to keep student loans at bay. What many students don’t realize (despite the efforts of higher ed. professionals) is that aside from some very specific professions, major doesn’t matter as much as they think in the job market. But if they spend four years studying something they find utterly uninspiring? That will show in their work ethic.

Another issue at play that is not often discussed is the fact that many students who declare STEM, Business, or Health majors are not afforded the opportunity to even explore the humanities, to learn what they are aside from “impractical.” As these popular degrees become more and more competitive, they require more of students. Engineering curriculums, for example, are often so structured that a student taking one semester to explore other major options (or other academic interests) will be set back an entire year – not acceptable with today’s skyrocketing tuition and fees. Sure, there are general education requirements. But, as was the case for students at the university where I advised, many fulfill these through AP credit or whatever fast-track courses are offered over summers at local community colleges, in the interest of saving time and money. I often lament this issue when talking to my husband, who teaches Art History, a subject that few students are exposed to in high school and beyond. He’s had countless juniors or seniors come up to him at the end of the semester and say how much they enjoyed the course, and that they wish they had taken an Art History course sooner. The problem? No one told them anything about it, except that it was a major with no job prospects, so they might as well just forget it.

It’s a difficult issue to solve. But the Academy of Arts and Sciences study offered some good news as well: while the number of humanities bachelor’s degrees may be declining, the number of associate degrees in these fields has been rising each year, all the way back to 1987. And while it’s true that many community college students will transfer to four-year schools and potentially declare non-humanities majors, it would seem community colleges are providing that opportunity for students to explore, even if they do end up going into a more “practical” field.

It’s disheartening out there for those in the humanities, particularly with the Trump administration’s proposed defunding of the National Endowment for the Humanities. But I strongly believe this trend is not forever. If we continue to teach, inspire, and talk to students about the benefits of these fields, hopefully we’ll see a reversal someday soon.

Check out the full study by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and read Inside Higher Ed’s analysis.