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Humanities Enrollments: Cause for Cautious Optimism or Concern?

Curriculum Planning and Development

Humanities Enrollments: Cause for Cautious Optimism or Concern?

Humanities sign on building
There is no doubt that STEM is sexy. Increasing tuition prices and consequent student loan amounts drive students and families to seek ROI on their educational investment. To many, this translates into a major that is easily identifiable as leading to a specific job. Engineering, coding, and even game-related majors dovetail nicely with careers that are in demand.

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There is no doubt that STEM is sexy. Increasing tuition prices and consequent student loan amounts drive students and families to seek ROI on their educational investment. To many, this translates into a major that is easily identifiable as leading to a specific job. Engineering, coding, and even game-related majors dovetail nicely with careers that are in demand.

This has not been welcome news for the humanities. Programs in history, English, and foreign languages have been targets for cost saving, with departments shrinking by attrition as tenured faculty retire, their lines going unfilled, and contingent faculty are brought in to teach the must-have courses. This often sets off a vicious cycle. Shrinking course offerings make departments and their majors less appealing to students, which in turn lowers enrollment and reduces demand for full-time scholars.

Nationally, however, the concern may be out of proportion. While it is true that the number of graduating humanities majors has declined in recent years, the historic pattern may not be as concerning as one thinks.

Category 1985–86 2005–06 2008–09 2011–12 2015–16 Pct. Change from 1985–86 Pct. Change from High Pct. Change from 2011–12
English language and literature/letters 34,083 55,096 55,465 53,765 42,795 25.6% −22.8% −20.4%
Foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics 11,550 19,410 21,169 21,756 18,427 59.5% −15.3% −15.3%
Liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities 21,336 44,898 47,095 46,717 43,661 104.6% −7.3% −6.5%
Social sciences and history 93,840 161,485 168,517 178,534 161,230 71.8% −9.7% −9.7%
Theology and religious vocations 5,510 8,548 8,940 9,304 9,804 77.9% 5.4% 5.4%

Table 1

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Looking at the data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for five categories that include humanities majors (Table 1), we see that most categories experienced a decline in between 2011–12 and 2015–16 (the most recent year for which the NCES has data). Many articles have cited this drop as evidence of the decline in interest in the humanities, especially among English majors. In fact, this five-year drop has spurred many institutions to dial back their humanities offerings in favor of other areas that seem to show more potential for growth.

A longer view, however, shows that all five categories have increased dramatically over the past 30 years. Of course, much of this growth can be attributed to millennials (b. 1981–2001) outnumbering Generation Xers (b. 1961–1981) as well as to increased opportunities for degree completion and programs designed for nontraditional students. As Figure 1 shows, English majors have suffered the largest drop from their all-time high, but they are still well above this generational low. Other categories have essentially remained stable over time. The most important takeaway from this data is that the humanities are not at their all-time lowest point of interest, and so universities should not plan for them to disappear entirely or be offered only by select institutions.

This generation-spanning view demonstrates how cyclical this sort of demand can be and why university leaders should not let their humanities programs go neglected. Higher education in the US is characterized by a continually oscillating focus—from classical or liberal arts education to workplace readiness training and back again. To judge from historical patterns, it is extremely likely that universities will refocus on areas that include the humanities, and universities must plan to be ready to meet that need.

This advance planning is critical because the current contraction of humanities programs is creating a pipeline problem that will manifest in two to three decades, when demand for the programs may start to increase. The elimination of PhD programs, the folding of multiple courses into a single survey, and the lack of emphasis on the job-related skills these majors develop all mean that universities will redevelop their humanities majors in response to demand instead of being out in front of it.

Figure 1

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

For the university that wishes to prepare for the inevitable rebound of interest in the humanities, I have two suggestions:

Don’t drop your majors

While it is tempting to eliminate majors in less-popular disciplines, such as classics and religious studies, areas, it would be wise to keep these programs on the books with some clear idea of how a student would complete such a program even with a diminished number of faculty. Universities that, like most do, fund their programs on the basis of enrolled majors need to find a strategy that encompasses support for a certain number of less- or non-profitable majors that fit within the university’s overall mission. A liberal arts–based institution, of course, will need to maintain a broader selection of humanities majors than one that is focused on other areas, but the offerings for either should be made with the whole institution in mind.

Support your minors

Some universities fund departments according to the number of majors but not the number of minors. Not only does this approach damage departments that cannot then fund these underutilized majors, but it robs the university of important pedagogical opportunities.

Even the most practical major can be buttressed by concentrated study in the humanities. A business major is well complemented by a history minor. Engineering graduates can gain additional marketability by studying a foreign language. The pairings are obvious; every student in every field of study can benefit from focusing on the wider context in which their discipline sits.

Ultimately, there is cause for cautious optimism about the demand for the humanities as universities continue to address students’ and parents’ concerns and desires. To paraphrase an old saying, however, those who eliminate their history departments are doomed to reinstitute them.

Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is chair of LHE19, editor of Academic Leader, adjunct professor of communication design at Miami University, adjunct professor of art at Wittenberg University, and owner of Hilltop Communications.