AAC&U News, August 2017

Facts & Figures – The Rise and Fall of the Humanities in Undergraduate Education

The number of students earning bachelor’s degrees in humanities fields has steadily declined from 2012 to 2015 (the most recent year with available data), according to an updated report from Humanities Indicators, a project of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences that draws data from the US Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Data System. The representation of humanities as a share of all bachelor’s degrees has steadily declined since 2005, while the representation of several engineering and sciences fields has increased. However, the report includes silver linings for the humanities: While the number of humanities bachelor’s degrees continues to decline, associate's degrees in the humanities are more popular than ever. Bachelor’s degree attainment is also on the rise for “traditionally underrepresented racial/ethnic groups,” including US citizens or permanent residents who “self-identify as African American (non-Hispanic), Hispanic, or American Indian/Alaska Native.”

Bachelor’s Degrees in the Humanities Decline

  • Students earned 212,512 bachelor’s degrees in humanities as a “first major” in 2015, a 5 percent decrease from 2014 and a 9.5 percent decrease from the “high-water mark of 234,737 degrees in 2012.” However, more humanities degrees were awarded in 2015 than in any year from 1987 to 2005 (see fig. 1).
  • This decline is more precipitous when compared to the overall number of bachelor’s degrees awarded each year. The “humanities’ share of all new bachelor’s degrees” steadily declined for a decade before 2015, when it fell under 12 percent for the first time. This is less than one-third of the sciences’ share (37 percent)—which includes health and medical, natural, and behavioral/social sciences—and less than two-thirds of business and management’s share (19 percent).
  • Only engineering, health and medical sciences, and the natural sciences represented larger shares of bachelor’s degrees in 2015 than in 2006. The education field suffered the greatest decline, with its share shrinking by 20 percent.


Associate’s Degrees in Humanities Continue to Rise

  • While four-year humanities degrees have declined, more associate's degrees in the humanities were awarded in 2015 (363,491) than in any other year since 1987 (the first year with complete data available). The number of degrees awarded in the humanities rose almost every year from 1987 to 2015, increasing 4.3 percent per year on average (see fig. 2).
  • The number of humanities degrees grew more quickly than vocational and professional fields from 1987 to 2010, and the number of vocational and professional degrees began to decline after 2011, with a “slight uptick” in 2015. According to the report, “more associate’s degrees were awarded in the humanities than in the vocational and professional fields for the first time” in 2012.


More Humanities Degrees Earned by “Traditionally Underrepresented Racial/Ethnic Groups"

  • Students from “traditionally underrepresented racial/ethnic groups” received 22 percent of humanities bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2015, nine percentage points higher than in 1995.
  • The percentage of these students earning degrees in the humanities was “most similar” to the health and medical sciences (21.5 percent) and business (20.5 percent) fields. Behavioral and social sciences awarded the highest percentage of degrees to these groups of students (26.1 percent), while the smallest and “slowest growing” field was engineering (15.5 percent).

Did you know?

In addition to the 212,512 humanities bachelor’s degrees received as a “first major” in 2015, another 24,035 students earned “second majors,” which the report defines as “a degree in a humanities discipline earned at the same time as a degree in a nonhumanities field or a different humanities discipline.” These second degrees have also declined from a high of 25,689 in 2012, but despite this decline, “humanities remained the most popular field in which to take a ‘second major.’”

Unless otherwise stated, all facts, figures, and images in this article are from Humanities Indicators, a project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Humanities Indicators analyzed and presented data from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Data System, which they accessed via the National Science Foundation’s WebCASPAR online data system.

About AAC&U News

AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


Please contact memberservices@aacu.org for membership questions.