Humanities Indicators
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Associate’s Degrees in the Humanities
(Updated May 2017)

A substantial number of postsecondary students encounter the humanities at the community-college level—as students pursuing terminal certificates and degrees or as students taking courses to fulfill requirements for four-year programs.[1] In 2015 the number of community-college students earning a degree in a humanities discipline or a degree that requires a substantial amount of training in the humanities—a degree in liberal or general studies, for example—was substantially larger than the number of students earning humanities degrees at the baccalaureate level. (The course requirements for an associate’s degree in liberal studies cover an array of subject areas. Nevertheless, a review of course requirements at community colleges by Humanities Indicators staff found that these institutions typically assign more than a third of the necessary credit hours for liberal and general studies degrees to humanities subjects, with history courses often counting toward both humanities and social science requirements.)

Findings and Trends

  • In 2015, the nation’s colleges conferred 363,491 associate’s degrees in the humanities, the highest level on record (most of these degrees were in “liberal arts” and “liberal studies”). The number of associate’s degrees conferred in humanities disciplines increased almost every year from 1987 to 2015, rising by an average of 4.3% per year (Indicator II-a1).
  • Traditionally, the largest number of associate’s degrees have been awarded in vocational and professional fields, however growth in these fields was less than in the humanities for most years of the 1987–2010 time period. (Degree conferrals in the professional fields were dominated by degrees in business and professions related to law and criminal justice.) The number of degrees in vocational and professional fields then fell after 2011, declining until 2015, when there was a slight uptick in completions. The 288,501 degrees awarded in this category in 2015 was the lowest level since 2009. As a result of these trends, in 2012, more associate’s degrees were awarded in the humanities than in the vocational and professional fields for the first time.
  • Associate’s degree conferrals in the health/medical and natural sciences declined slightly in recent years, from a high of 192,757 degrees in 2012 to 183,457 in 2015. The largest numerical drop in this category occurred among students earning nursing degrees (down 5,431), which account for more than a third of the degrees in this category.
  • As a share of all associate’s degrees, degrees conferred in subjects with a substantial amount of training in the humanities rose from 25.7% in 1987 to 41.8% in 2015 (Indicator II-a2). In comparison, over the same period the share of all associate’s degrees awarded in vocational and professional fields fell from 55.9% to 33.2%.
II-a1: Associate’s Degree Completions, by Field, 1987–2015
Source: U.S. Department of Education, Integrated Postsecondary Data System; data accessed via the National Science Foundation’s online data system, WebCASPAR. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).
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II-a2: Associate’s Degree Completions in Selected Fields as a Percentage of All Associate’s Degree Completions, 1987–2015
Source: U.S. Department of Education, Integrated Postsecondary Data System; data accessed via the National Science Foundation’s online data system, WebCASPAR. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).
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Endnotes

[1] A study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which examined the movement of first-time undergraduate students who started their studies in fall 2008, found that one in four students who started their education at two-year public institutions transferred to a four-year institution. Another 18% of students who started their studies in four-year institutions either transferred to or took classes at a two-year institution. Doug Shapiro et al., Transfer and Mobility: A National View of Student Movement in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2008 Cohort (Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2015), fig. 8.