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Decline in College Humanities Programs Seen Across Virginia and Nation

Payoff, debt and population have driven an enrollment decline in traditional humanities programs across the nation and state, especially in majors such as English, history and philosophy.  Virginia colleges awarded 39% fewer English degrees during the 2021-22 school year when compared to the 2011-12 school year, according to the data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

History degrees awarded in the state decreased by almost 34% over the same time period, according to SCHEV. Philosophy and religion degrees dropped almost 35%, according to the data. However, liberal arts degrees overall increased almost 46% over the decade, according to SCHEV.

The humanities and liberal arts are broad terms often used interchangeably. The traditional humanities were classically considered as “English, history, philosophy and foreign languages and literature.” Sciences like physics and chemistry, along with social sciences, usually fall under liberal arts, although some colleges place them in the humanities.

The decline of humanities programs enrollment

The enrollment decline trend is also seen outside of Virginia, according to Joe DeFilippo, SCHEV’s director of academic affairs. Between 2005 and 2020, the number of students earning a bachelor’s degree in the humanities field dropped 30% across the U.S., according to The Cornell Diplomat journal. “It’s a national thing and, frankly, it may well be international, maybe global,” DeFilippo said.

Liberal arts-focused Virginia colleges, such as Longwood University or the University of Mary Washington, may see increased enrollment in other areas of study, possibly business or STEM fields, according to DeFilippo. However, the humanities decrease can impact the overall enrollment for some small Virginia private colleges and mid-sized public colleges, according to DeFilippo.

Many people may view a humanities degree as impractical or useless, according to DeFilippo. The median salaries for those with bachelor’s degrees in traditional humanities degrees are typically lower than other fields, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics. “Questions about the return on investment in a college degree start to become more acute when people are considering a humanities degree,” DeFilippo said.

Students may be enticed by fields they believe are worth the money since tuition is such a large expense, according to the American Council on Science and Health. STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, fields have seen the biggest increases in enrollment, along with health professions, according to ACSH.

Parents can also pressure their children to pursue a career-oriented degree, according to DeFilippo. “They might not be heavy-handed about it, but probably what one of their number one concerns in life is that when you graduate you are equipped to pursue your life aspirations,” DeFilippo said.

How do humanities students feel?

Bryan Rivas is a senior at the University of Mary Washington. He is part of an accelerated bachelor’s-to-master’s program, where he will get a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in education, he stated in a follow-up message.

Rivas decided teaching could be a prominent job for a history grad, he said. His parents said they would fully support his decision, even though they had pointed to higher-paying paths. A good return on investment is not holding him back, Rivas said. His history program teaches important skills, he said. “It also helps you really think about certain things in a certain way, and gather your own opinion on certain things,” Rivas said.

Some people equate a degree’s value with the amount of future job possibilities, or may think a history degree is worthless, according to Rivas.  “In reality, if you have a history degree, you have a whole lot of options,” said Rivas. “You can be a politician, if you want to, you could work in museums; you can do something that is not even related to your field.”

Mallory Sorber is a junior English major at Virginia Commonwealth University. She started as a STEM major with a focus on general mathematics, she stated in a follow-up.  “I didn’t like it at all,” Sorber said. “I really liked writing, so I wanted to express myself.”

Sorber is afraid she won’t get a good return on investment with an English degree, she said. Jobs linked to an English degree aren’t very reliable, according to Sorber.

Some non-teaching jobs recommended for English majors include copywriter, medical writer and technical writer according to Coursera.  Students miss the chance to figure out what they really want to do when colleges mainly focus on potential jobs, Sorber said. “They’re kind of pressured to choose a major senior year of high school and stay with it forever,” she said.

Students studying the humanities seem happier than students in other programs, according to Sorber. “They seem to be enjoying it more and being passionate about what they’re working toward,” she said.

Where are students flocking?

Many students avoided humanities programs after the Great Recession of 2008, according to the Hechinger Report. The Hechinger Report is a nonprofit national newsroom focused on issues surrounding education, according to its website.

Students flocked to engineering, health and other career-oriented programs after the economy recovered, according to the report. Less than 1 in 10 students graduated with a degree in humanities in 2020, which is a 25% drop since 2012, according to the report.

Sam Phan is a senior at George Mason University. He majors in electrical engineering, he said. He also looked into finance or economics majors. Phan plans to go into consulting after graduation, where he would work with clients who need something built, such as circuits or electrical components, according to Phan.

He did not grow up wanting to be an engineer, Phan said. There was some influence from his father in picking his major, he said. “He kind of molded me into picking this major because he’s doing so well for himself,” Phan said. “He’s somehow managed to convince me to follow this career path, too.” The main thing he wants to do after graduation is find a well-paying job to live comfortably and take care of his future family, Phan said. He hasn’t thought about postgraduate studies.

Engineering majors make a median annual salary of almost $70,000 with up to five years of experience compared to the $48,500 salary humanities majors make with the same experience, according to a Payscale 2021 college salary report. Payscale is a compensation software and data company headquartered in Seattle.

How can humanities programs increase enrollment?

Almost half of humanities majors surveyed would not choose the same major again, according to a 2018 and 2019 study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Over 5,100 U.S. graduates participated in the survey, according to Gallup.

The graduates were asked about the perceived value of their undergraduate education. A similar percentage felt their program did not prepare them for life, the study found. The results were similar for business and behavioral and social sciences.

Engineering and health sciences students were more likely to choose the same major again, according to the study. Humanities majors or graduates should learn additional skills to make them more competitive in the job market, according to the AEI study.

Schools must be aware that employers now want a mix of skills, which can decrease the need for “today’s standard fields of study housed in traditional academic departments,” the report stated. Schools must also communicate job and learning opportunities to students through the entirety of their college careers, according to the study.

What happens if the decline continues?

Alex Keena is an assistant professor of political science at VCU. His class sizes have gotten slightly smaller since he started teaching in 2018, he said. “Fewer people were born 18 years ago than 25 years ago,” Keena said. “So, we’re seeing the tail end of a birth-cohort, a baby boom.”

Almost 26% of the population in 2000 was under age 18. That decreased to just over 22% in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  People are also “seriously” considering if college is worth it, according to Keena. The cost is higher, so people are more deliberate in their choice of a major that could pay off, he said.

Universities should sell the value of a humanities degree to prospective majors, Keena said. Some professors are worried college will become a “career training program,” he said. The point of college is not just to maximize earnings, he said. It also helps students find out who they are in some ways. “It’s helping you be a whole person and it’s giving you sort of this, like, grounding for life that goes beyond just how much money you’re going to make,” Keena said.

Decreasing humanities enrollment comes with major questions about the future of society, according to Keena. “Whether we’re talking about the future of artificial intelligence, whether we’re talking about the future of the economy and ethical dilemmas – displacement due to climate change,” Keena said. “The humanities gives us a way to have those conversations and to think about how they affect human beings beyond simply the bottom line.”

The humanities provide the “vocabulary” to talk about these issues, according to Keena. “If fewer people are graduating in humanities degrees, then we lose our ability to have these conversations in a nuanced way,” Keena said.

By Cassandra Loper / Capital News Service

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