Undergrad majors: the humanities seriously down, STEM slowly rising

Humanities Indicators logoWhich majors are undergraduates preferring in American higher education these days?  Not the humanities, according to a new study from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS).

Actually, there’s useful stuff for all majors, but let’s start with the humanities, where things look bad no matter which way we look.

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 The results depend on definition, but let’s start with “the ‘core’ humanities disciplines (English language and literature, history, languages and’ literatures other than English, linguistics, classical studies, and philosophy)”.  Recently they’ve had a harder time than usual, having “declined 8.7% from 2012 to 2014, falling to the smallest number of degrees conferred since 2003”.

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That’s in absolute numbers.  If we look at relative data, it’s no better:

As a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, the core humanities disciplines fell to their lowest recorded level, 6.1%, in 2014 (reliable data extend back to 1948; Indicator II-1aa). As recently as the early 1990s, the share for the core humanities was over 8.0%…

What if we expand the definition of humanities beyond those core fields, and “includ[e] degrees in area and gender studies, nonvocational religious studies, and some art studies)”?  Then in absolute numbers “the count of humanities bachelor’s completions for 2014 comes to 173,378—a 7.1% decline from 2012 levels.”  Viewed as a proportion, “allowing for the inclusion of degrees in a greater variety of humanities disciplines, degrees in the field represented 9.9% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2014, the smallest recorded share.” [emphases added]  “The field’s share shrank 19% from 2005 to 2014…”

English majors as proportion 1948-2014

Let’s break down the fields to see how individual disciplines fare.  Perhaps not surprisingly,

[t]he largest proportional declines occurred in archaeology and classical studies (down 19% each), but area studies and history also fell by more than 10% (declining by 13% and 12% respectively). English, the discipline that has consistently granted the most humanities degrees, conferred 8% fewer degrees in 2014.

humanities majors 1987-2014

Did any humanities do well in the general untergang?  Some surprises here:

Linguistics grew by 136 degrees (a 7% increase), while the number of comparative literature degrees increased by 50 (also a 7% increase from the 2012 total). The number of bachelor’s degrees in folklore was also higher, but since 2012 was the first year in which degrees were tabulated for the discipline, the growth (from 5 to 17 bachelor’s degrees) may just be the result of better reporting by colleges and universities.

If we return to considering the humanities as a whole and compare it to other branches of academia, things still look bad, at least for academic humanists:

the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities (9.9%) was less than a third of the 34.6% share for the sciences (natural, behavioral, and social combined; using CIP categories for tabulation; Indicator II-1b). The humanities also awarded about half the proportion of bachelor’s degrees conferred in the business and management field, which awarded 18.5% of all such degrees.

Meanwhile, how are other fields doing?  This is pretty interesting.  Consider the report’s main graph:
humanities degrees 1987 to 2014

The natural and social sciences are the only fields whose shares of all bachelor’s degrees awarded were higher in 2014 than a decade earlier….all the other fields experienced some loss in the share of degrees conferred…

Who else got hit?  Nobody as hard as the humanities, but there were “declines of almost 17% in the share for education and social service professions, and 16% for business and management.

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”  For a neoliberal era in love with business, that last point is fascinating!   Indeed, “the share of bachelor’s degrees conferred in the natural sciences (19.0%) exceed[ed] the share conferred in business and management (18.5%) for the first time in 2014.”

I would love to see a breakdown among fields within the social sciences.  Maybe economics and accounting are rising, and not counted under the business header.

It looks like CP Snow’s Two Cultures are still fighting, and the sciences are beating the humanists, at least in terms of students winning degrees.  This parallels the queen sacrifice pattern.

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(via Inside Higher Ed)

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2 Responses to Undergrad majors: the humanities seriously down, STEM slowly rising

  1. robertmcguire says:

    On that last chart, it’s unclear to me where computer science and mathematics fit in. Natural sciences? Engineering for computer science? If they are both in the natural sciences, that seems to support the notion that computer science is the new finance and is drawing students from business.

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