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. Humanities, education, and business are declining.
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:
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). 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. 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?