Diversifying the Humanities

Study finds gains in undergraduate degrees awarded, but losses at the doctoral level.

April 18, 2016

Humanities disciplines are seeing growth in the number of degrees awarded to minority students at the undergraduate level, hitting record levels in the largest humanities disciplines, according to an analysis being released today by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

But the analysis -- based on various federal databases -- shows uneven growth. Most of the gains are attributable to Latino students. The one exception to this trend was religion, where black students are making gains.

And at a time when minority students on many campuses are pushing their institutions to hire more minority faculty members, the analysis finds declines -- with the exception of philosophy -- in the number of doctoral degrees in the humanities awarded to minority students. These declines could complicate the efforts of colleges that have pledged to make set percentages of their new hires or faculties as a whole come from minority groups.

The undergraduate gains will likely lead to some increase in humanities doctoral degrees for minority students (even though most humanities undergraduates do not go on to get Ph.D.s in the discipline that is their major). But any such gains would likely take eight or more years, given the long time to degree in most humanities fields.

The figures combining all minority groups show substantial gains in recent years in the percentage of undergraduate degrees awarded. At the same time, the data show disciplines are largely white at a time when the United States population and the student bodies of many colleges and universities are more diverse.

Percentage of Undergraduate Degrees Awarded to Nonwhite Students in Humanities

But looking at individual disciplines shows the extent to which the gains are coming from Latino students, while most other minority groups are not going up in degrees awarded in the humanities. The following example, typical of the trend, shows English.

Share of Undergraduate English Degrees Awarded to Minority Students

At the doctoral level, however, the trends are moving in the opposite direction. This could create particular problems for departments under pressure to be sure that offerings in literature, history and other fields are taught by diverse professors.

In some fields, recent highs are not being exceeded. Among students earning doctoral degrees in languages other than English, the share of underrepresented minorities was lower in 2014 than in 1987.

Percentage of Doctoral Degrees Awarded to Minority Students in Languages Other Than English

In history, there is some variation among groups but the total numbers for minority Ph.D.s are dropping.

Percentage of Doctoral Degrees Awarded to Minority Students in History

The one area of doctoral education in the humanities where minority Ph.D. numbers are up is philosophy.

Percentage of Doctoral Degrees Awarded to Minority Students in Philosophy


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