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Closeup of a young Black man’s hand holding an open book in a library

Humanities faculty and departments can do more to recruit diverse students by removing hurdles to studying the field.

Andrii Zastrozhnov/iStock/Getty Images Plus

As higher education in general becomes more diverse, ensuring students have equal opportunities to pursue and explore various academic divisions is key. Some majors, including those in STEM, have historically been exclusive to certain under-resourced student groups due to gatekeeper courses which require extensive academic preparation. Others have less clear obstacles.

Researchers from the National Humanities Alliance sought to understand what factors acted as gatekeepers to student participation in the humanities and how institutional leaders and practitioners could better serve learners from diverse backgrounds. A new report, published June 18, details four common concerns held by students, as detailed by faculty and administrators, and different interventions colleges and universities can utilize to boost student interest and engagement in the field.

The report builds on 2021 research, which addresses recruitment strategy concerns for colleges and universities facing declining numbers of humanities students.

Methodology: Data represents over 300 responses from deans and associate deans who represent the humanities, as well as faculty, department chairs and humanities center directors from two- and four-year institutions across the U.S. and its territories.

The survey did not define “students from historically underrepresented groups,” to allow respondents to “apply this term freely to their unique contexts,” according to the report. Respondents highlighted first-generation students, Black, Latino, Pacific Islander, Native American students, underserved K-12 populations and community college transfers in the study.

Researchers also conducted interviews with faculty and administrators to learn more about interventions to address barriers and improve diversity and belonging in their programs.

The report contains a total of 15 case studies divided into two groups: initiatives to engage and support students in the humanities, and interventions for the whole campus community focused on increasing representation of underrepresented student groups.

Survey says: The survey highlighted four major barriers that hinder students from studying the humanities:

  • Traditional curricula feels out of touch. Highly diverse student populations hold different needs and interests and are often inadequately represented in course materials.
  • Concerns about job prospects. In recent years, the humanities have served as an example among parents, college counselors and the general public of an area that will produce underpaid college graduates, despite research highlighting the opposite to be true. The trend to steer students’ choices toward STEM may be particularly acute among communities that lacked previous opportunities to participate in higher education, according to the report.  
  • Lack of diverse faculty. An institution’s humanities department may not reflect the diversity among students, which could create cultural isolation among students in those programs, threatening their feelings of belonging.
  • Unfamiliarity with the humanities. Sometimes students are wholly unfamiliar with the concept of the humanities, particularly those coming from underserved K-12 schools, which makes them less inclined to pursue a degree in the field.

Solutions: To address these concerns, college and university leaders should consider:

  • Revamping curricula. This can involve updating and diversifying curricula, creating traditional ethnic and gender studies programs, creating programs for social justice and identity and having more applied humanities and interdisciplinary programs. James Madison University overhauled its general education requirements related to the humanities to provide better connections to students’ program of choice, making less connections to geographic regions and more to skills and knowledge acquisition, which helped attract first-generation students.
  • Reassuring students of career prospects. Professors and administrators should highlight career pathways to ease student anxieties around employability after graduation, including creating partnerships with career services, sharing data and stories of alumni and engaging employers. Pace University’s Writing for Diversity and Equity in Theater and Media program requires students to complete humanities and theater courses, as well as engage with working professionals on a regular basis through master classes and field trips, to build professional development.
  • Combatting cultural isolation. Not every institution will be able to invest in hiring diverse faculty members for a variety of reasons, but programs that center around student expression and opportunities to address questions of identity can attract students from underrepresented groups. The University of Washington hosts a Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies to help recruit and retain Native faculty at the university, as well as provides an American Indian studies degree program to support Native learners.
  • Making the humanities legible. Departmental staff should make the humanities and curricula more approachable to pitch the value of the humanities to learners, both in upper-level and general education courses, as well as in first-year experiences. Working with admissions, recruitment and marketing staff can help hone this pitch. The University of California, Los Angeles, created Humanities Welcome to highlight the value of the humanities knowledge and skills and how they can apply to students’ values and hopes for their college experience.  

Additional case study examples and interventions that support specific learner groups are highlighted in the full report.

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