While the humanities pervade many aspects of American life, this field is most directly
and extensively pursued in the nation’s colleges and universities. There, building
on the preparatory education of secondary school, students acquire knowledge of
humanities disciplines, and even those who major in other fields take humanities
courses. At the same time that colleges and universities provide students with training
in the humanities that they will draw on throughout their personal, professional,
and civic lives, these institutions also foster the majority of the intellectual
work that shapes the future of humanistic scholarship and teaching. The number of
students who take degrees in the humanities provides one of the most fundamental
indicators of the state of the field. Large changes in the numbers of those who
choose undergraduate humanities majors can affect the ecology of higher education,
while an increase or decrease in the number of those completing advanced degrees
in the humanities may signal tight job markets for new Ph.D.’s or warn of future
shortages of teachers.
Fortunately, data on degrees awarded by U.S. institutions of higher learning are
abundant and of good quality. The U.S. Department of Education and its predecessor,
the Office of Education, have collected data on postsecondary degree completions
for many decades. To be sure, data on some aspects of degree completion are less
readily accessible (e.g., information about the race/ethnicity of degree recipients
in some disciplines is available only for the last 15 years or so). But the available
data on degrees still provide some of the most current and reliable information
on the condition of the humanities in the United States over the last half-century.
The indicators in Part II offer answers to several key questions regarding humanities
degree awards in the contemporary United States, including:
How has the demand for humanities degrees changed over time?
What share of all academic degrees is awarded in the humanities?
How many humanities degrees are awarded in specific disciplines (e.g., English language
Several of the indicators in this part move beyond degree data to look at other
aspects of higher education in the humanities, including collegiate course-taking
(to ascertain how many students outside of humanities majors are engaged in humanistic
study), levels of college achievement in the humanities, and the extent to which
students participate in international education. This part also examines various
aspects of doctorate education in the humanities, such as the amount of debt with
which students emerge from Ph.D. programs and the percentage of students entering
these programs who ultimately obtain their degrees (and how this rate compares with
those in other academic fields).