Which majors are growing and which are shrinking: new data

What are students getting undergraduate degrees in?

The latest data is out from Humanities Indicators, and many familiar trends continue therein.

The short version: engineering, the health and medical sciences, and the natural sciences are growing.

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 Humanities, education, and business are declining.

Let’s dive in:
degrees by major to 2015

The humanities continue their post-financial-collapse slide: “The 212,512 humanities degrees conferred in 2015 was 5% below the previous year and 9.5% below the recent high-water mark of 234,737 degrees in 2012…”  Put another way,

After 10 consecutive years of declines, the humanities’ share of all new bachelor’s degrees fell below 12% in 2015 for the first time since a complete accounting of humanities degree completions became possible in 1987…

Business is declining, but still remains the most popular major by far.

Health care continues to grow, although few discuss its full range (think allied health, med tech, hospital administration, etc.) and impact in higher ed.  We’re on course for my Health Care Nation scenario.

The social sciences keep on trucking.

Meanwhile, among the humanities there are some interesting differences:

humanities degrees by major to 2015

Several disciplines are hit especially hard: “English language and literature [my field!], history, languages and literatures other than English, linguistics, classical studies, and philosophy”.  For example, history: “Degrees conferred by disciplines among the historical categories fell in 2015 to approximately 5% of all bachelor’s degree completions—the lowest level in records extending back to 1949.”

There is one single bright spot among the humanities departments: communication, which broke into the lead for the first time, capping decades of growth.

The only large humanities discipline to experience an increase in the number of degrees from 2012 to 2015 was communication, which increased 8% (even after excluding professional degrees in the discipline).

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The humanistic side of communication surpassed English in the conferral of bachelor’s degrees for the first time on record in 2014, and the gap continued to grow in 2015. In the most recent three years, the number of degrees in communication rose by 3,770, while the number of English degrees fell by 8,755.

I’d hazard a guess that communication’s engagement with the digital world plays a role in its robust growth.  (Compare with the humanities.)

I wonder about breaking this out further.  Where does computer science stand?  Can we track digital humanities majors?

More broadly, what does this data mean for the future of higher education?

In terms of disciplines, it’s possible that we’re seeing another turn in the humanities’ cyclical popularity.  If so, we should expect to work through this trough for a while, then watch literature and history lead the way in a rebound.

Alternatively, this could be a long-term shift.  Many forces would power this: the continued power and expansion of digital technologies, the American health care financial and access crisis (a/k/a, a boom in monies and jobs), the cultural perception of employment as fragile and risky, the humanities’ continuing to fail in offering popular public intellectuals.

Here’s a third option.  Matt Reed notes that humanities enrollments are up in one sector, community colleges.  And for one key reason:

enrollments in the humanities are on a steady upward path. Much of that is due to gen ed requirements for vertical transfer…

Perhaps what we’re seeing is a collapse in majors and upper-level humanities courses, while general education courses remain robust.  Imagine a future where Romantic poetry and Spinoza seminars are scarce, but everyone still takes composition 101 and intro to American history.

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 The humanities shift to becoming largely service departments.

Maybe I should generate a scenario set about this.  Which of these three seems most likely to you?

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(via Inside Higher Ed)

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6 Responses to Which majors are growing and which are shrinking: new data

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    Whither humanities in higher ed? (and, of course, work and professional implications for the adjuncts who teach them in entry level and lower division gen ed courses…)

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    But that’s not just Composition 101 — add introduction to literature and lower division surveys, intro courses in social sciences, history surveys. Consider the possibility of expanding the knowledgeable and interested audience for public intellectuals.

  3. Jay Collier says:

    It is also worth noting the relationships between major and future careers, and the importance of transferrable (soft, professional) skills across majors.


  4. Great information.

    My mother is a semi-retired Nurse/ & Midwife from Europe.
    Essentially now most jobs in the health profession are just
    glorified Data Entry positions. Doctors report to Insurance
    Companies & not the other way around, & now with the re-
    privatizing of more of the medical sector, we will be getting
    more paperwork & bureaucracy rather than compassionate
    care. These Medical Schools are the only ones set to really
    profit in this new era of life extension. As my mother often says
    Who will take care of the caregivers? It is all just a big business.

    Heaven forbid educators actually teach people to eat healthy foods &
    drink lots of water (which alleviates 80% of problems in the long run).
    There is no profit to be made from a healthy educated society, which is why
    the medical industry works to keep people dependent rather than healthy.

  5. App Accessibility Experiences in Higher Education says:

    Very interesting trends esp in the humanities- I would think courses that are re-invented with the word digital as their prefix, might also be interesting to track their enrollment trends maybe it would be over the last five years? Digital humanities, digital journalism- any the the like kind and also the degrees offered too. Thanks for your awesome post as it has made me look at this with a refreshed perspective.

    On Fri, Jun 9, 2017 at 8:23 AM, Bryan Alexander wrote:

    > Bryan Alexander posted: “What are students getting undergraduate degrees > in? The latest data is out from Humanities Indicators, and many familiar > trends continue therein. The short version: engineering, the health and > medical sciences, and the natural sciences are growing. ” >

  6. Pingback: On the solstice, dark thoughts for 2018 | Bryan Alexander

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