Data Forum

Who Takes Humanities Courses in College?

Norman Marshall Bradburn

This essay—and that by John G. Hildebrand— is in response to variations in course-taking among college majors.


Compared with our knowledge about students who take courses in the sciences, we know very little about who takes humanities courses in college. With the sciences, most of what we know is about majors rather than courses taken because data on majors are more readily available. Therefore having basic information about relative course-taking by students who majored in particular subjects is extremely important.

Although humanities majors constitute a smaller proportion of college graduates than do science majors (12% vs. 15%), it is surprising to find that college students as a whole take a higher number of humanities courses than STEM courses (22 credits vs. 17 credits or about 17% vs. 14% of their total credit hours).

What do we know about who takes humanities courses? An analysis of 1993 Baccalaureate & Beyond data provides some clues. Obviously the major is the greatest determinant. The patterns are roughly similar to those reported here for 2008 graduates (even though history was added to the humanities category with the 2008 data).

After taking into account the major, the 1993 data revealed that several other individual characteristics are associated with greater humanities course-taking. Chief among these are individuals’ values regarding what students want in the way of an occupation. The most important characteristic that works against taking humanities courses is “materialism,” measured by a stronger valuation of such occupational characteristics as having a good starting salary or owning a business. Graduates who rated high in materialism were much less likely to take humanities courses (regardless of their majors) than those rated low in materialism. Of lesser significance was an endorsement of “power-seeking” as measured by a desire for occupations that enabled one to be a leader in the community or an authority in one’s field. Those who wanted occupations that enabled them to be leaders or authorities were somewhat more likely to take humanities courses, even if they were not humanities majors. Unfortunately, the values were measured in the students’ senior year, so we cannot say whether the values influenced the humanities course-taking or the course-taking helped shape the values.

Several other individual characteristics showed a statistically significant but smaller relationship with humanities course-taking beyond the major. Graduates having a high verbal SAT score or belonging to a non-Asian minority group were more likely to take humanities courses regardless of their major.

Alongside values and other demographic characteristics, it is important to note how structural features of certain colleges and universities shape or restrict humanities course-taking. At many large universities, which the majority of students attend, students apply to a college within the university (such as the college of business, college of education, etc.), which has its own curriculum and course distribution requirements. While it may be possible to take courses in the other colleges, the initial choice of a college within the university effectively determines the number of humanities courses available to a student. Although there is some ability to change colleges within large universities, the initial choice of college restricts the humanities courses than one can take to a much greater extent than in a liberal arts college, where the selection of a major can come later and there is greater freedom to explore different fields.

Norman M. Bradburn, NORC at the University of Chicago





Humanities Indicators

Norman Marshall Bradburn and Robert B. Townsend