When the economy goes down, one expects the liberal arts -- especially the humanities -- to wither, and laments about their death to go up. That’s no surprise since these fields have often defined themselves as unsullied by practical application. This notion provides little comfort to students -- and parents -- who are anxious about their post-college prospects; getting a good job -- in dire times, any job -- is of utmost importance. (According to CIRP’s 2009 Freshman Survey, 56.5 percent of students -- the highest since 1983 -- said that “graduates getting good jobs” was an important factor when choosing where to go to college.)
One expects students, then, to rush to courses and majors that promise plenty of entry-level jobs. Anticipating this, college administrators would cut back or eliminate programs that are not “employment friendly,” as well as those that generate little research revenue. Exit fields like classics, comparative literature, foreign languages and literatures, philosophy, religion, and enter only those that are preprofessional in orientation. Colleges preserving a commitment to the liberal arts would see a decline in enrollment; in some cases, the institution itself would disappear.
So runs the widespread narrative of decline and fall. Everyone has an anecdote or two to support this story, but does it hold in general and can we learn something from a closer examination of the facts?
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the number of bachelor's degrees in “employment friendly” fields has been on the rise since 1970. Undergraduate business degrees -- the go-to “employment friendly” major -- has increased from 1970-71, with 115,400 degrees conferred, to 2007-08, with 335,250 conferred. In a parallel development, institutions graduated seven times more communications and journalism majors in 2007-08 than in 1970-71. And while numbers are small, there has been exponential growth in “parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies,” “security and protective services,” and “transportation and materials moving” degrees. Computer science, on the other hand, peaked in the mid-80s, dropped in the mid-90s, peaked again in the mid-2000s, and dropped again in the last five years.
What has students’ turn to such degrees meant for the humanities and social sciences? A mapping of bachelor degrees conferred in the humanities from 1966 to 2007 by the Humanities Indicator Project shows that the percentage of such majors was highest in the late 1960s (17-18 percent of all degrees conferred), low in the mid-1980s (6-7 percent), and more or less level since the early 1990s (8-9 percent). Trends, of course, vary from discipline to discipline.
Degrees awarded in English dropped from a high of 64,627 in 1970-71 to half that number in the early 1980s, before rising to 55,000 in the early 1990s and staying at that level since then. The social sciences and history were hit with a similar decline in majors in 1970s and 1980s, but then recovered nicely in the years since then and now have more than they did in 1970. The numbers of foreign language, philosophy, religious studies, and area studies majors have been stable since 1970. IPEDS data pick up where the Humanities Indicator Project leaves off and tell that in 2008 and 2009, the number of students who graduated with bachelor's degrees in English, foreign language and literatures, history, and philosophy and religion have remained at the same level.
What’s surprising about this bird’s-eye view of undergraduate education is not the increase in the number of majors in programs that should lead directly to a job after graduation, but that the number of degrees earned in the humanities and related fields have not been adversely affected by the financial troubles that have come and gone over the last two decades.
Of course, macro-level statistics reveal only part of the story. What do things look like at the ground level? How are departments faring? Course enrollments? Majors? Since the study of the Greek and Roman classics tends to be a bellwether for trends in the humanities and related fields (with departments that are small and often vulnerable), it seemed reasonable to ask Adam Blistein of the American Philological Association whether classics departments were being dropped at a significant number of places. “Not really” was his answer; while the classics major at Michigan State was cut, and a few other departments were in difficulty, there was no widespread damage to the field -- at least not yet.
Big declines in classics enrollments? Again, the answer seems to be, “Not really.” Many institutions report a steady gain in the number of majors over the past decade. Princeton’s classics department, for example, announced this past spring 17 graduating seniors, roughly twice what the number had been three decades ago. And the strength is not just in elite institutions. Charles Pazdernik at Grand Valley State University in hard-hit Michigan reported that his department has 50+ majors on the books and strong enrollments in language courses.
If classics seems to be faring surprisingly well, what about the modern languages? There are dire reports about German and Russian, and the Romance languages seem increasingly to be programs in Spanish, with a little French and Italian tossed in. The Modern Language Association reported in fall 2006 -- well before the current downturn -- a 12.9 percent gain in language study since 2002. This translates into 180,557 more enrollments. Every language except Biblical Hebrew showed increases, some exponential -- Arabic (126.5 percent), Chinese (51 percent), and Korean (37.1 percent) -- while others less so -- French (2.2 percent), German (3.5 percent), and Russian (3.9 percent). (Back to the ancient world for a moment: Latin saw a 7.9 percent increase, and ancient Greek 12.1 percent). The study of foreign languages, in other words, seems not to be disappearing; the mix is simply changing.
Theoretical and ideological issues have troubled and fragmented literature departments in recent years, but a spring 2010 conference on literary studies at the National Humanities Center suggests that the field is enjoying a revitalization. The mood was eloquent, upbeat, innovative; no doom and gloom, even though many participants were from institutions where painful budget cuts had recently been made.
A similar mood was evident at National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education, a gathering of some highly regarded assistant professors in the humanities and social sciences this past February. They were well aware that times were tough, the job market for Ph.D.s miserable, and tenure prospects uncertain. Yet their response was to get on with the work of strengthening liberal education, rather than bemoan its decline and fall. Energy was high, and with it the conviction that the best way to move liberal education forward was to achieve demonstrable improvements in student learning.
It’s true that these young faculty members are from top-flight universities. What about smaller, less well-endowed institutions? Richard Ekman of the Council of Independent Colleges reports that while a few of the colleges in his consortium are indeed in trouble, most were doing quite well, increasing enrollments and becoming more selective. And what about state universities and land grant institutions, where most students go to college? Were they scuttling the liberal arts and sciences because of fierce cutbacks? David Shulenburger of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities says that while budget cuts have resulted in strategic “consolidation of programs and sometimes the elimination of low-enrollment majors,” he does not “know of any public universities weakening their liberal education requirements.”
Mark Twain once remarked that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. The liberal arts disciplines, it seems, can say the same thing. The on-the-ground stories back up the statistics and reinforce the idea that the liberal arts are not dying, despite the soft job market and the recent recession. Majors are steady, enrollments are up in particular fields, and students -- and institutions -- aren’t turning their backs on disciplines that don’t have obvious utility for the workplace. The liberal arts seem to have a particular endurance and resilience, even when we expect them to decline and fall.
One could imagine any number of reasons why this is the case -- the inherent conservatism of colleges and universities is one -- but maybe something much more dynamic is at work. Perhaps the stamina of the liberal arts in today’s environment draws in part from the vital role they play in providing students with a robust liberal education, that is, a kind of education that develops their knowledge in a range of disciplinary fields, and importantly, their cognitive skills and personal competencies. The liberal arts continue -- and likely will always -- give students an education that delves into the intricate language of Shakespeare or Woolf, or the complex historical details of the Peloponnesian War or the French Revolution. That is a given.
But what the liberal arts also provide is a rich site for students to think critically, to write analytically and expressively, to consider questions of moral and ethical importance (as well as those of meaning and value), and to construct a framework for understanding the infinite complexities and uncertainties of human life. This is, as many have argued before, a powerful form of education, a point that students, the statistics and anecdotes show, agree with.
W. Robert Connor and Cheryl Ching
W. Robert Connor is the former president of the Teagle Foundation, to which he is now a senior adviser. Cheryl Ching is a program officer at Teagle.
The old saying that the privileged class “does not know how the other half lives” seems true in higher education.
At my private liberal arts institution, a faculty committee is concerned that a rule requiring three years of service between a paid untenured leave and paid sabbatical leave is unfair to some faculty members. The faculty is resisting another committee’s proposal to meet a government mandate by adding instructional activities to courses that we consider equivalent to four-hour courses elsewhere yet meet for only three hours per week here. Adding instruction undercuts our recent reduction to a five-course teaching load, and will seem even more like a “take-back” when faculty members calculate how little they will benefit from the small percentage raise approved for 2011-2012, which will be sliced into pieces for merit, equity, and market adjustments to keep each rank near the middle of its comparison group.
These concerns are similar to those at other selective private liberal arts colleges and universities, but readers who work at other types of institutions must be thinking, “Give me a break!” when they read about our woes. For us, these are not trivial issues, as they deal with equity and fair compensation. But they are trivial compared to the larger financial issues confronting this nation’s higher education system -- they are little chunks of ice compared to the iceberg of problems crushing less financially secure private institutions and almost all public institutions.
In his eye-opening 2008 book,The Last Professors:The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Frank Donoghue argues that American higher education is being divided into two sectors based on financial stability and prestige. My concern is that the “haves” are aware of neither the problems affecting the “have-nots” nor the fact that strains underlying those problems are destroying the foundations of nonprofit higher education as a whole. It is time for those in wealthy, selective institutions to “wake up and smell the coffee” of a national affordability crisis.
Consider the young people growing up in our own college town, who rarely attend our private college or any private college, more typically attending institutions supported by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Our new governor has just announced his budget proposal, which would represent, according to Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, the “single-largest appropriation cut in the history of higher education.” The 50 percent reduction in appropriations would decrease support of the 14 state-owned institutions and four state-related institutions by $660 million, including reducing support of Penn State’s budget by $182 million from an already low 8 percent to 4 percent. Public college tuitions, already above average for the nation, could increase as much as 20-25 percent. How would this affect our children and those of our neighbors?
Similar funding crises in other states are in the news, but those of us working in the relative comfort of selective private education generally have not realized the extent of the problem. Nor have we recognized that many of the major public institutions now receive so little support from their states that they are appropriately designated public-assisted or state-assisted. Tom Mortenson’s analysis in the February 2011 Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY illustrates not only the dramatic increase in average state fiscal support for higher education from 1961 to 1980 but also the more remarkable decrease of 39.8 percent from 1980 to 2011, with 2011 levels approximating those of 1967. Mortenson describes as ironic the concurrence of the funding decrease with this era’s emphasis on the relationship of higher education with income and well-being.
However, it is this very human-capital benefit that has allowed government to abandon responsibility for supporting higher education as a public good and shift cost to the consumer. Less directly, it has has allowed private institutions to shift their emphasis away from need-based aid guaranteeing affordability. My colleagues do not want our private college to educate only wealthy students, and they definitely want a public alternative for students who cannot afford private higher education.
But they need to know the trends in state funding, that students qualifying for Pell Grants (i.e., lower income students) rarely attend our institution or any of the top-tier private institutions, that need-based aid plays a shrinking role for needy students in both private and public education, and that the average debt for graduates who borrow to attend private and public institutions is high and growing higher.
Although the need to defend the value of high-cost private education has made us accustomed to thinking of public institutions in this state and elsewhere as competitors, I would ask my colleagues to think as citizens interested in the welfare of the population of our state and nation, and the welfare of the nation’s system of higher education. We should do so because, even though higher education benefits the individual graduate, it still is a public good. This public good comprises both the contributions of the graduates to society and the existence of the colleges and universities as cultural institutions that are contributors to new knowledge and repositories of knowledge, both knowledge with obvious practical benefits and knowledge with less obvious benefits such as helping us understand what it means to be human.
We also should think as defenders of higher education as a whole for the sake of equity -- because our own educations have been supported as a public good. Some government or nonprofit entity granted us part of the cost of our higher education not as personal gifts to individuals but because of a belief that it was fair for equally capable people to have equal opportunities, or that it was good for society for people like us to have that education. This help was given through government support of our public or private institutions, scholarships, subsidized work-study, subsidized loans, or, less visibly, through subsidies beyond the advertised cost provided by endowments of nonprofit private institutions. Finally, we should support public higher education, as well as our own private sector, because it is likely that our grandchildren, if not our children, will be unable to afford private higher education.
I would ask my colleagues to recall the educational history of their own families. My family has benefited enormously from the past generosity of the American higher education system and government support. In the late 1930s, my father was able to work and put himself through his low-cost hometown public institution. My mother received a scholarship to a private woman’s college; when her family ran out of money, an administrator there paid her remaining fees out of back wages owed her by the financially strapped institution.
In the 1960s, my husband and I both received generous need-based scholarships to selective private institutions, and mine was supplemented by a National Defense Education Act loan (50 percent of which was forgiven for my first five years of college teaching). Our graduate education was entirely paid by the government (National Science Foundation and Public Health Service) and by our private university’s endowment.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, over half of both our children’s tuition at private institutions was paid as a tuition benefit by my current institution. Both of our children also received advanced degrees at low-tuition public institutions, one with a teaching assistantship that paid even that tuition. Most of my colleagues have similar histories, perhaps with a larger contribution from public education. If private tuitions continue to increase at many times the rate of inflation, public tuitions continue to increase at a rate faster than private tuitions, and loans increasingly replace scholarship aid, will our grandchildren have similar opportunities?
Surprisingly, the College Board website presents the projected average for four years of tuition and fees for students beginning in 2028 at a private institution ($340,800) or an in-state public institution ($95,000) as though families can prepare for these costs. In his 2010 book Crisis on Campus, Mark Taylor argues that a four-year education at the more expensive top-tier private colleges and universities, which currently cost around $50,000 per year, would cost an astounding $661,792 for a student beginning in 2028. Such costs would seriously undermine the argument that the human capital benefits make even an expensive private school education “worth it” in terms of future earnings.
Although the skyrocketing costs of higher education are not primarily due to increases in faculty salaries, I do not think my colleagues realize the extent to which budget problems are being addressed in both the private and public sectors by using fewer full-time professors in continuing positions (ergo, “the last professors” of Donoghue’s book title). Over half of faculty members now are part-time, and part-time positions are the norm in the rapidly growing for-profit sector. Even among full-time professors, more than 40 percent are temporary or off the tenure track. Thus, only about 30 percent of faculty members fit my colleagues’ image of a traditional professor.
Less secure positions are cheaper and more flexible, making them hard for financially challenged institutions to resist. Although the attention of continuing faculty may be limited to their own sector, the job markets of the private, public, and for-profit sectors are connected. An excess of qualified applicants relative to full-time openings, the willingness of qualified professionals to work for lower pay and benefits in temporary positions or to work part-time without benefits, and the focus of our professional organizations on issues like tenure in full-time positions rather than on fair compensation and conditions for part-time and temporary faculty all depress the compensation structure for our profession as a whole.
My colleagues might expect that public institutions’ flat salaries for the past two years (plus unpaid furloughs and loss of paid sabbaticals, travel funds, and basic support) will give institutions such as ours an advantage in hiring. But any advantage likely would be temporary. Institutions such as ours have other urgent needs, as well as the need to slow tuition increases. Because compensation at private institutions is based on success in hiring and on comparisons with the overall AAUP rank averages, as well as comparisons with like institutions, faculty compensation at all but the wealthiest private institutions eventually will be negatively affected by salary difficulties in the public sector. We will all suffer if public institutions lack sufficient funds.
What steps would I urge for my colleagues and faculty members at other private institutions? We are experts at gathering information and sharing information on complex issues. We know how to make a case. We need to make sure that the situation of higher education as a whole is understood.
We need to ask our administrations to lobby for public higher education, and we need to support the lobbying efforts of the public sector. Writing our representatives matters; state legislators count constituents who are pro and con, and they also need information to bolster positions on the public good and affordability. Treating higher education as a private good can appear to be an easy answer for voters who are aware of large state deficits unless they have heard the argument for the public good. Although getting information to voters in general is somewhat unpredictable, we have direct access to our students, most of whom are eligible to vote in a state. In general, we need to stand with public higher education rather than competing with it, and we need to help make the case that higher education is a public good.
Eugenia P. Gerdes is professor of psychology and dean emerita of the College of Arts and Sciences at Bucknell University.