Humanities Are Shrinking, Except at Community Colleges

Global survey of higher education finds the trend everywhere but at U.S. two-year institutions.

June 14, 2021
(Yuri Arcurs/Getty Images)

Before the pandemic, the humanities were experiencing a period of substantial growth at community colleges but shrinkage everywhere else. And that extends to the entire world.

That is the finding of a new study, released today, by the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

In 2018, the nation’s community colleges conferred 413,246 associate degrees in liberal arts and the humanities, the highest level on record. The number of associate degrees conferred in these disciplines increased almost every year from 1987 to 2018, rising by an average of 4.3 percent annually.

Unlike the humanities degrees conferred at the baccalaureate level, almost all of the degrees counted here were classified by the conferring institution as being in “liberal arts” and “liberal studies” rather than specific humanities disciplines. For instance, of the 413,246 degrees tabulated as humanities for 2018, only a small share was conferred in a specific discipline (such as English or history). Since associate degrees are generally conferred with half the number of credits required for a typical bachelor’s degree program, students are less likely to specialize in a specific subject area. Nevertheless, the number and share of associate degrees conferred in specific humanities disciplines have been growing.

In contrast, the humanities’ share of all bachelor’s degrees conferred in the U.S. shrank to the smallest it has been since a complete accounting of degrees in the field became possible in 1987. The humanities’ share in 2018, 10.2 percent, was less than a third the size of the share for the sciences (health/medical, natural and behavioral/social sciences combined) and approximately half the size of that for the business/management field.

Students earned 23,166 humanities degrees as second majors in 2018, with languages other than English the most popular humanities discipline. The number of second-major completions remained 10 percent below the 2012 high but reflected small increases in both 2017 and 2018. In contrast, the number of second degrees completed in the natural sciences, health/medical sciences and engineering rose substantially from 2012 to 2018. The humanities accounted for 22.9 percent of all second majors in 2018, the smallest share on record.

The International Numbers

The Humanities Indicators Project then looked at the 38 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development for comparison. And the news is not good for the humanities.

From 2015 to 2018, the average share of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in OECD countries to humanities students shrank 5 percent (from 5.7 percent to 5.4 percent), with just eight of the 35 countries reporting an increase in share. The decline in the humanities’ share of graduate degrees was even more pronounced. The share of master’s degrees contracted 11 percent (from 5.4 percent to 4.8 percent of the degrees), and the share of doctoral degrees decreased 9 percent (from 9.1 percent to 8.3 percent).

Of the 33 OECD countries that provided data on doctoral degrees, the United States ranked 19th in the share of doctoral degrees awarded in the humanities in 2018. While 7.2 percent of all doctoral degrees in the United States were awarded in the humanities, the average share among the countries supplying data was 8.3 percent.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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