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Many liberal arts faculty members these days worry about struggling enrollments for their disciplines. But data being released today suggest that they might be encouraged by the trends at community colleges.

From 1987 to 2013, the average annual growth rate for liberal arts or liberal studies degrees at community colleges was 4.3 percent, according to data being released today as part of the Humanities Indicator Project of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The total number of degrees awarded a year in these fields grew over that time period from 113,587 to 338,688. The highest rate of increase came in 2010-12, when average annual growth hit 8.5 percent. Those were years when many community colleges reported increased enrollments from students planning to transfer later to four-year institutions.

The Humanities Indicator Project, as its name suggests, tracks data primarily in humanities disciplines. But at community colleges, the overwhelming majority of degrees that touch in some way on humanities are the pre-transfer degrees in liberal studies or liberal arts. Some colleges do have specific majors in humanities fields and they are included in the above total.

As the new report notes, community colleges have for years offered such liberal studies degrees, in many cases designed for students planning to transfer to four-year institutions. But amid debates over the state of the liberal arts, and fears of declining enrollments in the humanities, the programs at community colleges are largely ignored by those outside the two-year-college sector.

The period covered by the study is of course one in which many community colleges experienced significant enrollment growth across all programs. But the new data show that the growth was not just in the total number of degrees, but in the share of degrees awarded to humanities-linked fields such as liberal studies and liberal arts.

As a share of all associate degrees, those with a significant humanities component rose from 25.8 percent in 1987 to 38.9 percent in 2013. During the same time period, the share of degrees classified here as awarded in professional fields fell from 57.5 percent to 49.2 percent.

To accompany the data, the American Academy also released a short essay by Martha J. Kanter, a distinguished visiting professor of higher education at New York University and former U.S. under secretary of education. In the essay, Kanter writes that the new data should highlight the roles of community colleges beyond job preparation, both for those who earn liberal arts associate degrees and for others.

Writes Kanter: "Exposure to the humanities in the first two years of college as a significant component of general education provides the intellectual framework for students to compare and contrast the viewpoints of those different from themselves and to delve into the learning spheres of analytical reasoning, problem solving, and decision making to tackle the very real problems facing their communities and the greater society."


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