The news media is awash with the question of the future of the humanities in higher education. Are the humanities dead? Do they have value? Do they pay off? Do today’s students have an interest in the liberal arts? Does it matter?
Right or wrong, the easy assumption is that economic forces play out in university funding, job opportunities in STEM fields, and economic calculations of students and families. Those economic forces combine with public perceptions about the limited financial returns of areas of study that seemingly lack direct vocational resonance -- notably, the humanities.
That common view attracts some criticism. Professors and pundits defend the worth of the humanities -- from building character to thinking critically to valuing tradition. They attack philistinism, and they cite estimates of rising enrollments in the humanities and lifetime versus starting salaries. A few voices speak to preparing for multiple or sequential careers and lifelong learning. Fewer still point to the exaggerated numbers of high-paying, high-tech STEM jobs.
In my view as a university professor, too many of our defenses are weak ones. We should be able to mount a much stronger case and demonstrate more vigorously and convincingly our advantages, which are very real. Meanwhile, not recognized are the ways in which universities themselves have actively attacked and even crippled the humanities, the arts, and also the sciences -- the so-called foundations of higher education.
My own large public university does this through a series of policies and then a supposed ignorance of the combined impact of those policies. Not only do they actively damage the institution’s ability to conduct its business and to meet the needs of its students, faculty and component colleges but together they also constitute administrative malpractice.
The fact is that the university has chosen to admit and enroll increasingly more students in professional and preprofessional areas, especially engineering and business. Among the consequences has been the decline of about 40 percent over the past four years in both numbers of majors and course enrollments in the humanities. But the university did not take this path through any public discussion, explicit decision making or consideration of the major effects.
The principal weapon is a policy called the One University Enrollment Plan. Officially, one of its stated goals is to raise the average ACT scores of the entering first-year class. And this it did -- by 1.1 points in the last five years, from 27.8 to 28.9 at the main campus in Columbus, Ohio. That allows the university to claim that the incoming class is the “smartest” in its history. In addition, it counts in U.S. News & World Report rankings.
Less publicized is the goal of increasing the proportion of entering students from outside the state. Why? Well, other state universities do it. It also brings in more revenue from higher tuition rates. Access for in-state students can wait, despite the fact that access is part of the university’s vision. The percentage of African-American students at the Columbus campus has continued to fall, as it has since 2000.
That is one set of issues. Another is how this policy is enacted. In that enactment, the university reveals the assumptions of how it defines itself. Focusing on the rate of increase in applications to the campus’s colleges, the university achieves the goal by admitting a larger percent of the engineering and business students who apply and admitting fewer of the humanities, arts and science students who do. In other words, that seemingly simple arithmetic operation is not a matter of mathematics or science but rather a statement about the nature, purpose and shape of higher education.
For example, and surprising to many people today, the number of applicants in the humanities increases steadily and is approaching historically high levels -- up 25 percent since 2012 and 52 percent since 2004 at the Columbus campus. But numbers admitted have declined by 37 percent since 2010, the year before the enrollment plan began, and by 18 percent since 2012. Similarly, since the enrollment plan started in 2011, the proportion of admitted students enrolling (the yield rate) in the humanities (only 30.5 percent of admits in 2014) has declined at a faster rate than in the university as a whole.
The arts show the same trends. The fact that the rate of increase in applicants has been less in the humanities and the arts and sciences than in engineering and business has been allowed to obscure the fact that the total number of applications and therefore interest in the former areas is increasing. Admissions and enrollment in the sciences, perhaps surprisingly, have also declined but not as steeply. It is more than ironic that science is left out of STEM when it comes to admissions and enrollment efforts.
The results? I have been told that the College of Engineering has more students than it needs. Meanwhile, the Arts and Science College, the largest, cannot pay its bills and is declining in all dimensions.
What’s more, the enrollment plan interacts with other policies that also have a detrimental effect on the arts, humanities and sciences. Those include lowering and redistributing general education program requirements and basing unit budgets overwhelmingly on student course enrollments (semester credit hours) -- so-called responsibility-centered management. Under the combined impact, the dean of Arts and Sciences declared a crisis, which the news media reported last May.
The originators of the enrollment plan never considered its impact on the balance of students across the colleges or its effect on the operations of individual colleges. When asked about this, university officials told me honestly that they’d never looked at that. Nor was the simple fact that the average ACT scores could have been raised without unbalancing the university and weakening its central areas. In the current economic climate, many talented high school students interested in all fields of study have heightened interest in public universities. Of course, they need to be recruited, admitted and enrolled.
A university cannot construct its student body by blindly pursuing percentage increases in applications to the neglect of the undergraduate population over all or the impact on its academic components. A university is not determined by a popularity contest. In fact, its reason to exist is just the opposite.
Apart from overloading disproportionately some parts of the university and underserving (and underfunding) others, such actions ignore, for example, that the College of Engineering reportedly graduates a lower proportion of its entering students than other colleges (and is also marked by a gender imbalance).
Without a larger discussion and declared institutionwide policies about the present and future of higher education, such actions cripple the contemporary university’s core, compromise its declared mission and move from a balanced university to a vocational and technical institute. Indeed, such actions answer crucial and challenging questions about the future and the value of the liberal arts and sciences without ever asking them.
Harvey J. Graff is Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies and professor of English and history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).