Humanities Indicators
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Survey on Humanities in Community Colleges

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The humanities are a large and growing presence in community colleges, as documented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (HI), which monitors trends in humanities degrees awarded by these institutions and in the number of humanities faculty. In an effort to more fully capture the scale and character of humanities education at these institutions, the HI (with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities) surveyed the nation’s community colleges on three key topics:

  1. The number and share of students taking humanities courses;
  2. The number and share of faculty teaching such courses;
  3. The representation among humanities coursetakers of “dually enrolled” students, that is, students who earn college credit in the humanities while still in high school.

Background & Development

In the original conception of the HI, the American Academy did not envision collecting new data, planning instead to draw exclusively on existing high-quality data sources. As the HI developed in the early 2000s, however, project leaders confronted a lack of national data on key higher education topics. Working with the heads of scholarly societies in the field, project leaders sought to develop a survey to address these knowledge gaps, but they quickly ran up against a critical structural difference between two- and four-year institutions: while humanities education at four-year colleges and universities is typically organized into discipline-focused departments that could serve as the subjects of research, this is not the case at most community colleges.[1] Given that difficulty, the American Academy chose to focus its first forays into survey research on humanities departments at four-year institutions (in 2008 and again in 2013).Given that the nation’s almost 1,000 public community colleges enroll approximately a third of the nation’s undergraduates,[2] and serve a disproportionate share of non-traditional, low-income, part-time students, the Indicators staff recognized the need to include this sector in future studies. Meanwhile, the Academy continued to work with the Community College Humanities Association to develop a survey of the community college sector. After a 2012 meeting with leaders in this sector, as well as conversation with staff members at the American Association of Community Colleges, the HI in 2014 conducted an exploratory survey of 25 presidents of community colleges. The results of this study were encouraging (demonstrating considerable interest among these institutions’ leaders in knowing more about the state of the humanities at community colleges), but they also revealed two challenges. One was that differences in terminology and institutional structure between two-year and four-year institutions made it difficult to ask questions that would provide comparability between a study of community colleges and the surveys of four-year institutions already conducted by the HI. Additionally, some respondents noted that the HI’s conceptualization of the humanities, particularly its exclusion of the fine and performing arts from the field, could be counterintuitive for community college administrators and might affect their willingness or ability to respond to the survey.

A meeting with community college leaders and researchers in December 2015 led to the HI’s commitment to developing a national survey tailored to the community college sector. Staff members drafted a survey instrument and conducted cognitive interviews with institutional researchers at a variety of colleges to assess the feasibility of questions on a wide range of topics. It became clear that questions of considerable interest to the field, such as those about the demographics of faculty and students, and also faculty employment status,[3] were not likely to yield reliable estimates, due to the fact that those data were often contained in databases maintained by an administrative unit other than the institutional research office, such as the human resources department. A survey requiring a hand-off between units was likely to result in either high levels of nonresponse, or in poor-quality data (as institutional research supplied guesses when a hand-off proved difficult). The HI thus decided to limit the focus of the survey to the numbers of students and faculty involved in humanities education.


With the particulars of the survey instrument reviewed and approved, HI staff assembled a comprehensive list of community college presidents to serve as the initial point of contact. The survey was sent by the HI’s data contractor, the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics (SRC), to the presidents of 966 community colleges in the spring of 2017, seeking information for the Fall 2015 term (to ensure complete and accurate information was available). These colleges constituted every public, nontribal institution in the continental United States categorized by The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as an “Associate’s College.”

SRC conducted extensive follow-up with surveyed institutions to ensure an adequate rate of response. Twenty-nine percent of surveyed institutions responded. Missing data were estimated using multiple imputation. SRC was thus able to generate estimates of humanities students and faculty for the entire community college sector, and to classify institutions by size, region, and programmatic focus. As they are derived not from a census of community colleges but from data provided by a subset of institutions (the 29% that responded to the survey) combined with imputed data for nonrespondents, the findings reported here are estimates (upper- and lower-bound) of the true quantities.[4] For a more detailed description of the study’s methodology, see Attachments A–D in the Appendix.

All references to courses are to credit-bearing courses. All references to students or “coursetakers” are to those enrolled in at least one such course. Faculty estimates exclude instructional staff who teach only continuing education courses, as well as those who work in agricultural extension or clinical services.


Overview Tables


[1] The issue of identifying respondents at two-year institutions presented a challenge for a 1999 study by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, which conducted a survey of departments at both two- and four-year institutions. The response rate for two-year humanities programs was a fraction of that for four-year colleges and universities, which presented a substantial problem for comparative analysis. Robert B. Townsend, Who Is Teaching in US College Classrooms? A Coalition on the Academic Workforce Study of Undergraduate Faculty (Washington, DC: American Historical Association, 2000), (accessed 12/19/2018).
[2] In the text and tables that follow, institutions described as either “community colleges” or “two-year colleges” refer to public institutions identified as “Associates” colleges in the The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, according to the US Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System for the 2014–15 academic year. See Attachment A in the Appendix for specifics.
[3] Faculty in two-year colleges are more likely to be employed in a part-time or adjunct capacity than their counterparts at four-year institutions. A 2003 federal survey of faculty found that two-thirds of the faculty and instructional staff in two-year colleges were employed part-time, as compared to less than half of the faculty and instructional staff across the higher education sector. See National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2016, Table 315.60 (Full-time and part-time faculty and instructional staff in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by race/ethnicity, sex, and selected characteristics: Fall 2003), online at
[4] Estimates are of the upper and lower bounds of a 95% confidence interval. See Attachment C for details.