9 key findings about the humanities in higher education

Research aims to provide a “balanced look” at the state of humanities.

humanities-reportAccording to a new report, there is no evidence of a net decline in the number of degree-granting departments in the humanities. But that doesn’t mean humanities studies are where they once were.

The report aims to offer a look at the state of humanities in higher education to provide a balanced look at the field in the wake of portrayals that characterize it as beleaguered and declining.

The State of the Humanities: Higher Education 2015, from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is intended to provide a more evidenced-based depiction of the health of the humanities on college and university campuses.

The new report draws on the latest research and analysis from the Humanities Indicators, an ongoing research initiative of the Academy that incorporates federal and high-quality private data sets as well as original survey information.

(Next page: Nine key findings from the humanities report)

The report’s publication coincides with the release of new and revised Indicators that delve more deeply into recent declines in the number of students earning degrees in humanities fields.

To provide context, the Academy is also publishing a discussion of the findings in its Data Forum, with commentary from Danielle Allen (Institute for Advanced Study; Harvard University) and Michael Roth (Wesleyan University) about the future of the field.

Among the key findings:

  • While there are a number of troubling signs for the humanities in the trends among new degree recipients, other indicators highlighted in the State of the Humanities report offer signs of improvement for the humanities fields. These include evidence of rising interest in the humanities at the pre-baccalaureate level (evident in rising numbers of AP tests taken and community college degrees earned), increases (from low levels, in comparison to other fields) in funding, and steady numbers in the publication of new academic titles in the field (pages 8, 10, 17 and 19).
  • As a share of four-year undergraduate degrees conferred, the humanities have been losing ground to other disciplines since 2007 (falling from 12.1 percent of new degree recipients to 10.4 percent in 2013; page 6 of the State of the Humanities report and Indicator II-1aa).
  • Despite the decline in the number of degrees, according to a recent Academy survey there was no evidence of a net decline in the number of degree-granting departments in the humanities from 2007 to 2013 (page 3).
  • The newly updated Indicators highlight some of the emerging challenges at the four-year level. The share of undergraduate degrees earned by humanities students at private not-for-profit colleges and universities—a traditional area of strength for the field—has been shrinking for two decades, and in 2013 reached the lowest point since at least 1987 (page 9 and Indicator II-3e).
  • The three largest humanities disciplines (English language and literatures, history, and foreign languages and literatures) have all seen a flattening in the number of new degrees since the late 2000s, and all three experienced a decline in the total number of degrees conferred from 2012 to 2013 (Indicator II-2b).
  • The share of women earning bachelor’s degrees in the field has declined almost every year since 2003 (falling from 62 percent to 59 percent in 2013; Indicator II-5).
  • When students on temporary visas are excluded from the count, the humanities are conferring among the smallest proportions of degrees in academia on undergraduates from minority groups (Indicator II-4).
  • While the share of students earning humanities bachelor’s degrees has been shrinking since the recession, the share of students earning master’s degrees has been shrinking almost every year since 1993, and reached a new low in 2013 (page 6 and Indicator II-10aa).
  • The 2013 decrease in the share of doctoral degrees conferred in the humanities brought to an end the five-year recovery from 2007’s historic low (page 6 and Indicator II-10bb).

The Humanities Indicators covers 76 topics, with over 500 graphs and tables of information, on primary and secondary education, undergraduate and graduate education, the humanities workforce, humanities funding and research, and the humanities in American life. The Indicators are supported through funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

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Laura Ascione