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The Humanities, Arts, and Education

What Do Changes in the Intended Majors of College-Bound Seniors Portend for the Humanities?

Worries about the declining number of college students majoring in the humanities have become a recurring theme in recent articles and reports from several four-year institutions.1 Trends in the number of students receiving degrees in the field provide solid national data, but as many have noted, they are lagging indicators. They arrive long after students have made their decisions about majors and a couple of years after they have received their degree.

One possible measure of future trends for the humanities lies in early signals of student interest in the field. For years, the College Board has asked students taking the SAT about the field or discipline they intend to major in. As shown in Figure 1, the share of students intending to pursue a major in the arts and humanities (the fine and applied arts, languages and literatures, history, journalism and communications, media and film studies, philosophy, and religion) has been shrinking since 2007 – from 16.6% of college-bound seniors in 2007 to 12.6% in 2014.2 Another measure, from a survey of incoming first-year college students (first-time, full-time) at four-year universities, also shows a decline in the number of students who indicate they plan to major in the arts and humanities, with the percentage dropping from 13.8% in 2007 to 10.3% in 2014.3

Figure 1: Percentage of Students Who Intend to Major in Arts and Humanities, 2007–2014

Source: Source: Tabulation for college-bound seniors taken from table 25 of the College Board’s Total Group Profile Report, which is posted annually at http://research.collegeboard.org/programs/sat/data/archived. Data on first-year students taken from “What is your probable field of study?” at “Backgrounds and Beliefs of College Freshmen,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 5, 2015.

Given the many changes that will take place in students’ lives between the taking of the SAT and the completion of a degree, these measures are at best only an imperfect predictor of future degree trends. The shifts in these two surveys may suggest a change over time in perceptions of the humanities among young people before they are introduced to the arts and humanities at the college level. But do they portend future changes in the number of arts and humanities majors?

To assess the value of these measures and what they might indicate for the field, Chandra L. Muller (professor and faculty research associate) and Jamie M. Carroll (PhD student) in the Department of Sociology and Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin look to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education from students who are considered to be in their first year of college (based on the number of credits they have accumulated). Their findings, detailed in the forum essay below, suggest that young people’s early educational aspirations with respect to field of study may not be a reliable predictor of the fields in which they ultimately major.

August 31, 2015

What Do Changes in the Intended Majors of College-Bound Seniors Portend for the Humanities?

posted by Jamie Carroll and Chandra Muller

The growing concern about fewer humanities majors at four-year colleges stems from two perspectives. One perspective fears that fewer students majoring in humanities means fewer humanities courses being offered, fewer humanities faculty members, and fewer dollars for the humanities overall. Another perspective fears that a decline in humanities majors means a decline in the general liberal arts knowledge, which provides students with critical thinking and writing skills useful in a variety of occupations. In examining these concerns, we found promising signs for both camps.

The findings from the Higher Education Research Institute and College Board from More...


ENDNOTES

1 Colleen Flaherty, “Major Exodus,” Inside Higher Ed, January 26, 2015; Peter Jacobs, “A Major Milestone at Harvard Signals the Decline of Humanities,” Business Insider, October 7, 2014; and Jinjoo Lee, “Concerns about Job Market Lead Students to STEM Majors,” Cornell Daily Sun, February 25, 2014.

2 Tabulations taken from table 25 of the College Board’s Total Group Profile Report, posted annually at http://research.collegeboard.org/programs/sat/data.

3 See a trend line on this question going back to 1971 by selecting “What is your probable field of study?” from the dropdown menu at “Backgrounds and Beliefs of College Freshmen,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 5, 2015.

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