Humanities Indicators
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Higher Education  >  Undergraduate Education
 
Bachelor's Degrees in the Humanities
(Updated March 2016)

Since the Second World War, the trend in humanities bachelor’s degree completions has experienced a number of fluctuations, rising sharply after the war, plummeting through the 1970s and early 1980s, and then recovering. More recent years have seen a plateau and then a decline.

Findings and Trends

  • The number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in the “core” humanities disciplines (English language and literature, history, languages and literatures other than English, linguistics, classical studies, and philosophy) declined 8.7% from 2012 to 2014, falling to the smallest number of degrees conferred since 2003 (106,869; Indicator II-1a).[1]
  • From the mid-1950s to 1971, the number of bachelor’s degrees rose steadily to a peak of just over 136,000 degrees conferred. But the annual number of humanities degrees conferred fell sharply throughout the 1970s and into the mid-1980s, so that by 1984 the humanities were awarding less than half the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in the field in the early 1970s. In the late 1980s, degree completions began to increase again, rising as high as 118,096 in 2009.
  • The Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) allows for the identification of a fuller range of humanities degrees (including degrees in area and gender studies, nonvocational religious studies, and some art studies). When CIP is used to tally degrees, the count of humanities bachelor’s completions for 2014 comes to 173,378—a 7.1% decline from 2012 levels.
  • As a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, the core humanities disciplines fell to their lowest recorded level, 6.1%, in 2014 (reliable data extend back to 1948; Indicator II-1aa). As recently as the early 1990s, the share for the core humanities was over 8.0%, with the highest postwar level being 17.2% in 1967. When CIP categories are used for tabulation, allowing for the inclusion of degrees in a greater variety of humanities disciplines, degrees in the field represented 9.9% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2014, the smallest recorded share.
  • The humanities experienced a substantial decline in their share of all bachelor’s degrees over the course of the 1970s and early 1980s. Although the number of humanities degree completions increased thereafter, so did the total number of bachelor’s degrees awarded. Consequently, the humanities’ share of all bachelor’s degrees remains well below the historic high recorded in 1967.
  • In 2014 the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities (9.9%) was less than a third of the 34.6% share for the sciences (natural, behavioral, and social combined; using CIP categories for tabulation; Indicator II-1b). The humanities also awarded about half the proportion of bachelor’s degrees conferred in the business and management field, which awarded 18.5% of all such degrees.
  • The natural and social sciences are the only fields whose shares of all bachelor’s degrees awarded were higher in 2014 than a decade earlier. While all the other fields experienced some loss in the share of degrees conferred, the humanities experienced the largest proportional decline. The field’s share shrank 19% from 2005 to 2014, surpassing declines of almost 17% in the share for education and social service professions, and 16% for business and management. (Comparisons between the humanities and business should be made with caution, however, given the humanities field’s smaller 2005 baseline value.)
  • The substantial increase over the 2005–2014 time period in the natural sciences’ share of all degrees completed, in combination with a more gradual but steady decline in business’s share over the same decade, resulted in the share of bachelor’s degrees conferred in the natural sciences (19.0%) exceeding the share conferred in business and management (18.5%) for the first time in 2014. This is a striking reversal of the state of affairs in 1987, when business claimed a share of degree completions that was almost 12 percentage points larger than the share claimed by the natural sciences.
  • Within the humanities, most disciplines experienced a decline from 2012 to 2014 in the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred annually (Indicator II-2c). The largest proportional declines occurred in archaeology and classical studies (down 19% each), but area studies and history also fell by more than 10% (declining by 13% and 12% respectively). English, the discipline that has consistently granted the most humanities degrees, conferred 8% fewer degrees in 2014.
  • Only three humanities disciplines experienced an increase in the number of bachelor’s degrees from 2012 to 2014. Linguistics grew by 136 degrees (a 7% increase), while the number of comparative literature degrees increased by 50 (also a 7% increase from the 2012 total). The number of bachelor’s degrees in folklore was also higher, but since 2012 was the first year in which degrees were tabulated for the discipline, the growth (from 5 to 17 bachelor’s degrees) may just be the result of better reporting by colleges and universities.
II-1a: Bachelor’s Degree Completions in the Humanities, 1948–2014*

* Degree completion counts could not be obtained for 1979 and 1983. The degree counts depicted do not include “second majors.” For data on such degrees, see “Humanities Bachelor’s Degrees as a Second Major.”
** “CIP” refers to the Classification of Instructional Programs.
† English language and literature, history, languages and literatures other than English (including linguistics and classical studies), and philosophy. Please see the Note on the Data Used to Calculate Humanities Degree Counts and Shares for an explanation of the difference between the two trend lines.

Source: Office of Education/U.S. Department of Education, “Survey of Earned Degrees,” “Higher Education General Information System (HEGIS),” and “Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS).” HEGIS and IPEDS data were accessed and analyzed via the National Science Foundation's online data system, WebCASPAR.

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II-1aa: Bachelor’s Degree Completions in the Humanities as a Percentage of All Bachelor’s Degree Completions, 1948–2014*

* Information could not be obtained for 1979 and 1983. The percentages do not include “second majors.” For data on such degrees, see “Humanities Bachelor’s Degrees as a Second Major.”
** “CIP” refers to the Classification of Instructional Programs.
† English language and literature, history, languages and literatures other than English (including linguistics and classical studies), and philosophy. Please see the Note on the Data Used to Calculate Humanities Degree Counts and Shares for an explanation of the difference between the two trend lines.

Source: Office of Education/U.S. Department of Education, “Survey of Earned Degrees,” “Higher Education General Information System (HEGIS),” and “Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS).” HEGIS and IPEDS data were accessed and analyzed via the National Science Foundation's online data system, WebCASPAR.

About this DataRelated Indicators
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II-1b: Shares of All Bachelor’s Degrees Awarded in Selected Academic Fields, 1987–2014*

* Information could not be obtained for 1979 and 1983. The percentages do not include “second majors.” For data on such degrees, see “Humanities Bachelor’s Degrees as a Second Major.”
** “CIP” refers to the Classification of Instructional Programs.
† English language and literature, history, languages and literatures other than English (including linguistics and classical studies), and philosophy. Please see the Note on the Data Used to Calculate Humanities Degree Counts and Shares for an explanation of the difference between the two trend lines.

Source: Office of Education/U.S. Department of Education, “Survey of Earned Degrees,” “Higher Education General Information System (HEGIS),” and “Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS).” HEGIS and IPEDS data were accessed and analyzed via the National Science Foundation's online data system, WebCASPAR.

About this DataRelated Indicators
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II-2c: Number of Humanities Bachelor’s Degree Completions, by Discipline, 1987–2014

* Values for the disciplines included in the “Other” category are provided in Supporting Table II-1c.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Data System; accessed via the National Science Foundation’s online data system, WebCASPAR.

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Endnotes

[1] The Humanities Indicators takes these disciplines to be the “core” because together they constitute the majority of humanities degrees and also because they are the only disciplines for which comparable data are available that allow for the construction of a long-term trend.