As Humanities Majors Decline, Colleges Try to Hype Up Their Programs

The Great Recession scared a lot of students away from the humanities. Now administrators are trying to bring them back.

Students sit in a library.
Jae C. Hong / AP

Even as college students on the whole began to shun humanities majors over the past decade in favor of vocational majors in business and health, there was one group of holdouts: undergraduates at elite colleges and universities. That’s not the case anymore, and as a result, many colleges have become cheerleaders for their own humanities programs, launching promotional campaigns to make them more appealing to students.

As Benjamin Schmidt wrote in The Atlantic recently, humanities majors—which traditionally made up one-third of all degrees awarded at top liberal-arts colleges as recently as 2011—have fallen to well under a quarter. Meanwhile, at elite research universities the share of humanities degrees has dropped from 17 percent a decade ago to just 11 percent today.

“This wasn’t a gradual decline; it was more like a tidal wave,” says Brian C. Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College. The Minnesota campus, which is well known for its international-studies program, has “never been a science-first liberal-arts college,” Rosenberg said. But now 41 percent of its graduates complete a major in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field. That’s up from 27 percent only a decade ago.

The reasons for this national shift are many, but most academics attribute it mostly to the lingering effects of the Great Recession. One of the earliest memories for the generation entering college right now is of Americans losing their jobs and sometimes their homes. Financial security still weighs heavily on the minds of these students. Indeed, a long-running annual survey taken of new college freshman has found in the past decade that the No. 1 reason students say they go to college is to get a better job; for the 20 years before the recession hit in 2008, the top reason was to learn about things that interested them.

Unlike automakers, which can swiftly switch production lines when consumers start buying SUVs instead of sedans, colleges can’t adjust their faculty ranks as quickly in response to public demand. Often, schools wait for professors to retire to reassign those openings to disciplines with the greatest need. Even then, small schools might only recruit a handful of new faculty every year. When they hire, most colleges also need to keep a balance of professors across departments to teach introductory classes that are part of a core curriculum. Macalester, for instance, hired 11 full-time faculty members this year—four of them in computer science and statistics. “We have vacant positions in history and English, and we decided not to fill them,” Rosenberg says.

With that pace of hiring, it’s nearly impossible for many colleges to keep up with increasing enrollments in popular majors while maintaining small classes. What’s more, faculty members hired for tenure-track positions who eventually earn tenure are essentially promised lifetime employment at the college. “When you put labor in position for 30 years, your ability to respond to future trends becomes really challenging,” says Raynard Kington, the president of Grinnell College, in Iowa. Grinnell expects 70 students to graduate with computer-science degrees this spring out of a class of around 400; four years ago, it graduated just 15 computer-science majors.

To avoid further slippage in humanities majors, elite colleges and universities have resorted to an all-out campaign to convince students that such degrees aren’t just tickets to jobs as bartenders and Starbucks baristas. Colleges are starting early with that push. Stanford University writes letters and sends brochures to top-notch high-school students with an interest in the humanities to encourage them to apply, says Debra Satz, the dean of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. Prospective students can also take humanities classes at Stanford while still in high school.

What’s puzzling to the college officials I spoke to is that they say students’ interest in humanities majors remains high during the college-search process, according to what students indicate on their applications. Then something happens between when students apply and when they actually declare a major, usually in their sophomore year. Perhaps students’ intentions on their applications weren’t serious, but if they were, Satz says it’s critical that humanities courses in the freshman year capture their attention. At Stanford, she said introductory courses in the humanities are focused on “big ideas,” such as justice, ethics, and the environment, to appeal to students trying to choose their major.

“We have to make the offerings really good, really enriching,” Satz says. “Part of our challenge is when students see so many of their peers going into computer science.”

To help guide the course selection of incoming students, Grinnell sent a booklet to all freshmen this past summer that outlined the importance of a broad liberal-arts education. The college also added a session on the topic to orientation in advance of students meeting their academic advisers. Both initiatives, Kington said, were intended to encourage students to select courses across a range of academic disciplines, given that Grinnell lacks a traditional core curriculum with mandated requirements.

Macalester’s tactic has been to try to inject some humanities into STEM classes and some practical career training into the humanities. Last year, Rosenberg, the school’s president, brought the faculty together at a retreat to discuss the shifting balance of majors. One outcome was that faculty members were encouraged to pair together courses across academic disciplines so that, for example, a new class in social media might be a blend of computer science and philosophy. Professors in the humanities were also encouraged to give their students more career guidance than in the past, when many humanities students simply went to graduate school or law school after college.

“The typical English major is designed to get students to go to graduate school,” Rosenberg says. “We need to rethink the curriculum so that it’s more focused on what employers will immediately find attractive.”

Rosenberg was present when several presidents of elite colleges gathered last fall for a meeting in New York City. At our table during lunch, there was a debate about whether the changing distribution of majors was really a crisis. After all, at least at liberal-arts colleges, the humanities remain a central part of the curriculum, including for STEM majors. Indeed, Satz of Stanford says she’s less concerned about the 14 percent drop in humanities majors at the university over the past decade, and more focused on the 20 percent increase in enrollment in humanities courses.

“There’s only so much we can do to stem the tide in majors,” she says. “What I care about is that every student in engineering can think critically, can read carefully, and they can listen empathetically. That happens by taking courses in the humanities.”

Rosenberg, an English professor and Charles Dickens scholar by training, agrees. He says he doesn’t blame students for flocking to computer science and applied mathematics. Mathematical literacy and the ability to manipulate large data sets are becoming more critical in every job, including those the humanities traditionally trained, from journalists to sociologists. “We’re not giving students enough credit,” Rosenberg says. “They’re picking something that’s really interesting to them.”

Unless colleges in the United States want to follow the European model, where prospective students apply to specific degree programs instead of a given university, the choices of American students will likely always shift with the winds of employment. Some studies suggest that many of the tasks done by humans in STEM fields will be automated in the future; robots may well end up writing most programming and intelligent algorithms. So if elite colleges just wait long enough, perhaps the humanities will make a comeback as humans look for the kind of knowledge that helps them complement rather than compete with technology.