Category Archives: Bachelor’s degrees

The Decline in Humanities Majors

How to promote the value of study in the humanities and how to give a convincing public account of the benefit an undergraduate might expect to receive from majoring in a humanities discipline have been perennial questions for academic humanists and humanities departments. Both questions gained urgency after 2009, when programs began seeing declines—in some cases reportedly precipitous—in the number of undergraduates declaring a humanities major. The anecdotal reports were connected to currently enrolled undergraduates. But they foretold declines that appeared two or three years later in the systematic degree completions data that the federal government collects as part of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). As made available on the National Science Foundation’s WebCASPAR site, IPEDS degree completions show steep downturns in English and history since 2012, following a long period of relative stability through the 1990s and early 2000s. The other core humanities disciplines—languages other than English and philosophy and religious studies—saw similar, if less dramatic, declines (fig. 1). The recent decline has eroded 48.6% of the increase in bachelor’s degrees English saw after 1987 and 39.3%, 22.2%, and 25.6% of the increases that history, languages other than English, and philosophy and religious studies, respectively, saw until as recently as 2012.

Fig. 1.

Figure 1 shows a twenty-nine-year span of data back to 1987, the year the United States Department of Education introduced the Classification of Instructional Programs, which categorized the fields of study in which institutions confer degrees with greater detail than before. (In the Department of Education’s pre-1987 field categorization, philosophy and religious studies was not broken out as a separate discipline, but included in “other humanities.”) Figure 2, which includes data going back to 1966, shows that the current decline, measured in absolute numbers, is—as of 2015—still modest compared with the decline in degree completions that English and history experienced in the 1970s.

Fig. 2.

In relative terms, however, as a share of all bachelor’s degree completions, the humanities fields stand near or below the lows reached in the 1980s. English has seen its share erode steadily since 1993, falling to 2.24 of every 100 bachelor’s degrees in 2015, considerably below its prior low point of 3.19, reached in 1983. History has fallen to 1.47 of every 100, also below its prior low point, 1.63, reached in 1985 (fig. 3).

Fig. 3.

Looking at the humanities alongside the social sciences and sciences (the other core liberal arts disciplines) reveals an interesting trend. Over the 1987–2015 period, the humanities, biological sciences, and psychology and other social sciences have moved closer to one another in the share of bachelor’s degrees each area of study awards (fig. 4). In 1987 the physical sciences, biological sciences, and psychology clustered close to one another, each of them awarding about 4 of every 100 bachelor’s degrees. By 2000 the biological sciences and psychology had each increased their shares to about 6 of every 100 degrees, while the share of the physical sciences fell to just over 2 of every 100 degrees and the share of the humanities grew to just under 12 per 100. The quickened flow of students out of the humanities after 2009 meant that by 2015 the humanities were conferring 3.4 fewer bachelor’s degrees per 100 than they had a decade earlier, in 2006. As a result, the gap between the humanities and the social sciences narrowed from 2.9 degrees per 100 in 2006 to 0.9 per 100 in 2015. The gap between the biological sciences and social sciences narrowed from 3.8 degrees per 100 in 2006 to 1.5 per 100 in 2015. Put another way, in the short span of ten years, from 2006 to 2015, the difference
between the humanities and biological sciences in the number of bachelor’s degrees per 100 awarded in each field shrank by almost two-thirds, from 6.7 degrees per 100 in 2006 to 2.3 degrees per 100 in 2015. With the exception of the physical sciences, in 2015 the arts and sciences disciplines claimed shares of bachelor’s degree completions that are far closer to one another than they had been even as recently as 2008.

Fig. 4.

But this redistribution of bachelor’s degree awards within the liberal arts and sciences pales in comparison with changes occurring in professional fields that have clearer ties to specific occupations. Most striking is the astonishing growth in bachelor’s degrees conferred in health professions since 2004. From 1987 to 2004, health professions conferred 6.2 of every 100 bachelor’s degrees, on average. After 2004, that share grew sharply, to 8.3 of every 100 bachelor’s degrees, on average, for the years 2005 to 2015 (fig. 5).

Fig. 5.

Of equal moment is the flow of students out of education, which over the eighteen years from 1987 to 2004 conferred, on average, 9.1 of every 100 bachelor’s degrees; that number shrank to 6.3 of every 100, on average, for the eleven years from 2005 to 2015 (fig. 6).

Fig. 6.

By 2015, education had fallen to under 5.0 of every 100 bachelor’s degrees, and health professions had grown to over 11.5 of every 100 bachelor’s degrees.

From 1987 to 2006 visual and performing arts saw its share of bachelor’s degrees grow steadily, and it has largely sustained its position since 2006 (fig. 7). Some degree programs categorized under visual and performing arts clearly belong to the academic humanities (art history and film studies, for example). Others signal student interest in hands-on creative work that results in tangible products or performances, whether with a professional aspiration or as a personal avocation (visual and performing arts includes degree programs in acting; dance; music performance; photography and cinematography; and studio arts and painting, sculpture, printmaking, ceramics, metal arts, and weaving). Student interest in these programs in the arts surely shares something in common with the appeal of creative writing that many English departments report draws students to the English major now.

Fig. 7.

Figure 8 breaks out English, history, and languages other than English to facilitate comparison of trends in the share of degree completions for these humanities fields with those for the six other areas of study that are the focus of this post.

Fig. 8.

The parallel trend lines for English and education may be related, given the historic ties between the undergraduate English major and student aspirations to careers in secondary school teaching. This conjecture returns us to the questions we began with: How do we make the case for the wide-ranging benefits study in the humanities offers for students’ lives and career prospects? And what terms do we use to refocus public discourse on the contributions a humanities education makes to the greater social good as well as to students’ individual economic and career success? To address these questions, we might start in the classroom, encouraging students to reflect with intention on how the academic work they are doing today is exercising capabilities that will serve them well tomorrow, both in their working lives and as citizens.

David Laurence

The National Science Foundation’s WebCASPAR Web site provides easy access to time-series data on degree completions, compiled from the degree completions component of the United States Department of Education’s IPEDS survey series. The WebCASPAR interface allows users to specify a wide range of variables and levels of granularity, from degree levels (associate to doctorate) to individual institutions or groups of institutions to national data in the aggregate. WebCASPAR completions totals include United States territories and outlying areas along with the fifty states and the District of Columbia. The figures in this post were created by the author from queries to WebCASPAR that asked for bachelor’s degree completions from 1987 to 2015 by two-digit CIP code and for bachelor’s degree completions from 1966 to 2015 by detailed academic discipline. Derivative calculations, such as the number of degrees per 100, are the author’s.

The Gender Pay Gap and the Career Paths of Humanities Majors

This post also appears in the Humanities Indicators Data Forum.

The Humanities Indicators has published two new reports documenting the effect of gender on the occupations and earnings of humanities majors. The new reports mark a significant addition to the indicators, especially when they are read in relation to one another and to findings from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) on the gender pay gap and from the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce on employment and earnings of college graduates.

It is worth recalling the data sources that have made it possible to develop these correlations among gender, earnings, occupation, and major field of baccalaureate study: the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Current Population Survey (CPS), both administered by the United States Census Bureau. The current public discussion of the economic value of different college majors stems from a question the Census Bureau added to the ACS in 2009, asking respondents about the major of anyone with a bachelor’s degree living in the households canvassed by the ACS; before 2009, occupations and earnings could be analyzed by level of educational attainment but not by undergraduate field of study. The AAUW’s data on the gender pay gap come from the CPS; administered monthly for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CPS is the nation’s primary source of information about the labor force, employment, and earnings.

What do these two additions to the Humanities Indicators tell us? The first, on gender and occupations, shows that women proceed from a bachelor’s degree to lower-paid careers in precollegiate education at twice the rate men do and that men are 40% more likely to be in higher-paid management occupations than women. The second, on gender and earnings, shows that, among twenty-four-year-olds to thirty-four-year-olds (or “less experienced workers,” in the reports’ transposition of chronological age into a proxy for postbaccalaureate time in the labor force), women earned $2,000 less than men; this pay gap grows to $17,000 for those between thirty-five and fifty-four (“more experienced workers”). That is, the women in the 24–34 age group earned 4.8% less than the men, or, as this report expresses it following the convention of using the larger (in this case female) population as the base, the men earned 5.0% more than the women. (Presenting the gap both ways may facilitate comparisons, since in most discussions the dollar figure for men serves as the base for calculating the gap in percentage terms.) And among the more experienced workers, in the 35–54 age group, the men with a terminal bachelor’s degree earned 32.7% more than the women; put the other way, the women earned 24.6% less than the men, or 75% of what the men earned. These findings point us to perennial questions about the direction of causality. Do the women earn less because they enter socially valuable but lower-paid professions like teaching? Or are socially valuable occupations like teaching lower paying because women predominately make careers in them?

The imbalances in occupations persist for humanities graduates who go on to earn advanced degrees. These reports show that women who earn an advanced degree after earning a humanities bachelor’s degree continue to be employed in precollegiate teaching at twice the rate of men (18.2% of the women compared with 9.2% of the men). The men who hold an advanced degree are 1.7 times more likely to be in legal occupations than the women (17.4% of the men compared with 10.1% of the women). Among holders of advanced degrees in the humanities in the 35–54 age group, the women earn $18,000 less than the men, or earn about 80% of what the men earn.

The AAUW’s fall 2015 report, The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap, notes that “in 2014 women working full-time in the United States typically were paid just 79 percent of what men were paid” (3). The Humanities Indicators data on the pay gap, based on a subpopulation disaggregated by both level of education and chronological age as a proxy for level of experience, appear to align with that 79.0% figure, which is based on pay to all women working full-time, regardless of their level of experience or education. The Humanities Indicators data likewise seem aligned with the gender pay gap for graduates in all age groups with terminal bachelor’s degrees in humanities and liberal arts—$7,000—that the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce cites in What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors (2011), the first of its series of reports on earnings of college graduates, broken out by disciplines (136). In percentage terms, a $7,000 gender pay gap corresponds with women earning 86.0% of what men earn. That 86.0% figure makes sense in relation to the figures from the Humanities Indicators and the 79.0% figure from the AAUW report, given that the Georgetown Center reports lump together less and more experienced members of the workforce but exclude those who hold degrees beyond the BA. The two new Humanities Indicators reports let us see how disparities in occupations and earnings that the Georgetown Center studies have documented between the humanities and other fields also appear within the humanities. All these reports prompt important questions about the way gender inflects the choices individuals make at critical junctures of their lives and the degree to which personal agency or the power of social roles and institutions holds sway in motivating and determining what end up being called our personal choices.

Visitors to the Humanities Indicators may find themselves wondering whether to adopt the optimistic view that the gender pay gap for more recent college graduates will stay small and even be made to shrink under conditions where policy and practice are advancing toward increasing equity. Or should one instead take the pessimistic view that the gap will gradually increase for these younger members of the workforce, repeating the earnings disparities characteristic of their elders, most of whom presumably earned their bachelor’s degrees decades ago? And if the gender pay gap contracts, will it do so because median earnings for women catch up to men’s even as median earnings for men increase? Or will the gap contract because median earnings for men continue to deteriorate?

The ACS data have allowed analysts to reveal correlations among major field of baccalaureate study, occupation, and earnings. But how directly applicable are these reports to students who are working toward a bachelor’s degree now? The findings about the career paths and earnings histories of more experienced workers who earned degrees two, three, or more decades ago reach us today, but does the information we receive reveal more about conditions prevailing today or, like light from a distant star, about those prevailing at the point in the past when the majors were completed and the degrees conferred?

The release of these new reports creates an occasion to consider how the ACS data and the series of Georgetown Center reports based on them have focused public attention on earnings as a measure of the relative educational value of different fields of study, sometimes the leading or even sole measure considered worth attention. On the positive side, the Humanities Indicators reports and the Georgetown Center reports all show that graduates who take bachelor’s degrees in the humanities find employment, often in occupations whose social value needs to be reemphasized, not denigrated. The lower earnings these occupations have historically yielded should not be allowed to define their relative worth or the worth of the fields of study that characteristically serve as pathways to them. A capacious view of these data on occupations, earnings, gender, and college majors will push beyond their face value and lead us to ask important questions about how the social and economic arrangements behind them have come about. The links among gender, field of study, occupation, and earnings have powerful implications for public policy and broader social change that will create better, more equitable arrangements.

David Laurence

Mismeasuring the Humanities

In the wake of the release of The Heart of the Matter, a report commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that argues for the importance of the humanities and social sciences, and a trio of Harvard reports advocating humanities study, sympathetic voices have come forward to lament a purported decline in humanities study, to assess the cause of such a decline, and to prescribe remedies. Yet, as Ben Schmidt has pointed out, conclusions about trends in humanities degrees need to take into account broader changes in higher education. Citing the percentage of undergraduates receiving degrees in the humanities in, say, 1971, compared with the percentage receiving humanities degrees today omits at least two key parts of the picture.

1. The percentage value for “then” is inflated by the high percentage of women who were, until the 1970s, a semicaptive audience for study in the humanities (and also in education).

For example, in the late 1960s, nearly 12 of every 100 degrees earned by women were in English. For men, the figure was about 4.5 of every 100 degrees. By 1983, just over 4 of every 100 degrees women earned were in English, and the gap in the number of English degrees awarded to women versus men shrank from over 7 of every 100 degrees to less than 2. That is, as women gained entry to professions formerly closed to them, their choice of English as a major came to resemble men’s more closely, and the proportion of degrees they earned in English dwindled.

The other side of the coin appears in business degrees. In 1966, fewer than 3 of every 100 degrees earned by women were in business, compared with 20 of every 100 degrees for men. Twenty years later, in 1986, the figure reached 22 of every 100 degrees for women, and the gap between the rate at which women and men chose business as a field of study narrowed by 12 percentage points (over 70%), from 17 to 5 percentage points.

2. The percentage value for “now” can be artificially depressed if it is calculated using a too-restrictive aggregation for the humanities.

The 7% figure often cited as the percentage of college graduates who majored in the humanities in 2010 reflects a National Science Foundation aggregation that, for example, categorizes art history degrees with the arts rather than with the humanities and degrees in ethnic studies, women’s studies, and other area studies fields with the social sciences. While the assignments are debatable, a percentage value derived from a system that places them all outside the humanities should not be taken simply at face value.

Using a more capacious aggregation that includes academic studies in the arts and in humanities-connected programs in area studies, the Humanities Indicators has created an accounting showing that degrees in the humanities have steadily held a share between 10% and 12% for more than two decades.

A decline in the percentage of humanities degrees earned did occur between 1970 and 1986, but the decline affected all the liberal arts disciplines, not just the humanities, and it was short-lived. The humanities share increased from 1986 to 1990, and since 1990 it has remained unchanged for two decades. Taking the two dates 1966 and 2011 while completely ignoring the middle gives an inaccurate picture.

A numerical decline is not prima facie evidence sufficient to prove there has been a “fall” or “demise.”

A list of articles related to the recent reports appears on the From the President blog.

David Laurence