JOHN HOOD COLUMN: Fewer students major in humanities

Published 12:05 pm Wednesday, July 28, 2021

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RALEIGH — Most students attend colleges or universities primarily to acquire the knowledge, skills and credentials required to get a rewarding job.

That’s what most college students say in surveys. That’s what most parents think they are helping to finance. You can also divine student intentions by looking at how they choose to spend most of their academic time while on campus.

According to the most-recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, American institutions awarded just over two million degrees to undergraduate students during the 2018-19 academic year. Some 19 percent of these graduates majored in business and another 26 percent in some other professional discipline such as health care, recreation and leisure, communications, or public service.

Another 84,000 undergraduate degrees, about 4 percent of the 2019 total, were in education. That’s another professional major, of course, but worth singling out for special consideration because it’s been shrinking rather than growing over time. In 1971, colleges and universities awarded 176,000 education degrees, about one-fifth of all undergraduate degrees conferred. By 2010, the number of education degrees had fallen to 102,000 (6 percent of the total).

What’s left? Degrees in STEM fields — physical sciences, technology, engineering, and math — made up 23 percent of all undergraduate degrees in 2019, up from 17 percent in 2010. The social sciences accounted for 15 percent of the 2019 total. The remaining 13 percent of majors were in the humanities, including such fields as literature, philosophy, religion, the visual and performing arts, and what the Education Department calls “area, ethnic, cultural, and group studies.”

Speaking of which, I’ll now narrow the focus to majors that have experienced either outsized growth or significant shrinkage since 2010. By “outsized growth,” I mean majors that represent a significant share of the total and that had growth rates at least double the national average (overall, undergraduate degrees went up 22 percent from 2010 to 2019). As for “significant shrinkage,” I mean majors that went down by double-digit percentages.

Here are the disciplines showing outsized growth: computer and information science (124 percent); health professions (94 percent); engineering (74 percent); mathematics and statistics (63 percent); parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies (61 percent); and agriculture and natural resources (54 percent).

And here are the disciplines experiencing significant shrinkage: English language and literature (-26 percent), foreign language and literature (-23 percent), philosophy and religious studies (-23 percent), education (-17 percent), architecture (-12 percent) and area or ethnic studies (-10 percent).

Trends within the University of North Carolina system generally match the national ones, with a few deviations here and there. Most undergraduates major in business or some other professional program. STEM majors are growing rapidly, too, while many humanities majors are experiencing either stagnant or declining enrollments.

These are simply facts. What they mean is, naturally, a debatable proposition.

Some argue that many students are entering those vocation-specific majors reluctantly, having taken on substantial debt to finance the ever-escalating price tag for the four or more years it takes to get an undergraduate degree. If relieved of the financial burden — either by federal debt forgiveness or higher state subsidy or both — they’d welcome the opportunity to major in literature, classics, history, or philosophy for their intrinsic value rather than having to prioritize the prospect for success in the job market.

Others argue that whatever the merits and appeal of the humanities may be in theory, current academic practice is a major turnoff. Too many professors prefer to teach courses based on their own narrow, often idiosyncratic research interests rather than teaching about the great ideas, institutions, people, and works of art that students actually want to study. And because so much of the content is drenched in grievance, identity politics, and radical leftism, many potential majors are either bored or actively repelled by it.

Personally, I’d love to see more students majoring in the humanities. If policymakers agree, there are two steps they can take. First, reduce the actual cost of getting a degree (which is not the same as increasing the subsidy). Second, depoliticize the subject matter.

Both are, sadly, easier said than done.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member and author.