Humanities Indicators
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Higher Education  >  Graduate Education
 
Advanced Degrees in the Humanities
(Updated March 2016)

The past six decades have seen dramatic growth, marked decline, and then recovery in the completion of advanced degrees in the humanities. Coming years will tell whether a recent downturn in the number of bachelor’s degree completions results in a similar decline in advanced degrees.

Findings and Trends

  • In recent years, the numbers of master’s (Indicator II-10a) and doctoral degrees (Indicator II-10b) completed annually in the “core” humanities disciplines—English language and literature, history, languages and literatures other than English (including linguistics and classics), and philosophy—both trended higher.[1] However, from 2012 to 2014 the number of master’s completions in the humanities fell 6.7%, while the number of awarded doctoral degrees remained largely unchanged.
  • The greatest postwar increase in the number of graduate-level core humanities degrees occurred from 1955 to the early 1970s, with more than a four-fold increase over that span at both the master’s and the doctoral levels. The number of master’s degrees peaked at 21,542 in 1971, while the number of doctorates peaked at 4,708 in 1973.
  • After 1973 the number of advanced degrees conferred in the core humanities disciplines tumbled. By the mid-to-late 1980s, humanities programs were awarding less than half the number of advanced degrees they had conferred in the early 1970s.
  • The decline in advanced-level core humanities degrees reversed in the late 1980s. By 1994 the number of master’s degrees had risen to 68% of the 1971 peak. Following a decline in the late 1990s, master’s degree completions picked up again in 2002 and increased almost every year until 2012 (to 17,902) but then fell over the next two years to 16,709 master’s degrees (78% of the peak number) in 2014.
  • The trend in doctorate completions generally followed the same trajectory as the number of master’s degrees (albeit with a slight lag in time). Humanities doctorates in the core disciplines reached the height of their recovery in 1998, when the number reached 80% of the 1973 peak. Doctorate completions then declined through 2005 before picking up again in the latter part of the decade. The number of doctorates conferred in the core humanities disciplines increased to over 4,000 doctoral degrees in 2013 (for the first time since 1976), before falling slightly in 2014.
  • When tallied using the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP), which 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; see Note on the Data Used to Calculate Humanities Degree Counts and Shares for details), the number of master’s degrees conferred annually since 1987 is 39–55% higher and that for doctorates is 24–33% higher than when only degrees in core humanities disciplines are counted.
  • Almost every humanities discipline depicted in these indicators experienced an increase in the number of master’s and doctoral degrees completed annually from 2000 to 2012 (Indicator II-10cc and Indicator II-10dd). However, the trends for the two degree levels diverged from 2012 to 2014. Although the majority of fields experienced a decline in numbers at both levels, the drop at the master’s level was most pronounced in the fields that award the largest number of degrees (e.g., history degrees declined by 8% and general humanities/liberal studies fell by 22%). In contrast, the disciplines awarding the largest numbers of doctoral degrees either experienced only a slight decline (English, with a 2% drop) or grew (history and LOTE increased 6% and 4%).
II-10a: Master’s Degree Completions in the Humanities, 1948–2014

* English language and literature, history, languages and literatures other than English (including linguistics and classics), and philosophy. “CIP” refers to the Classification of Instructional Programs. Please see the Note on the Data Used to Calculate Humanities Degree Counts and Shares for an explanation of the differences between the two sets of degree counts.

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-10b: Doctoral Degree Completions in the Humanities, 1948–2014

* English language and literature, history, languages and literatures other than English (including linguistics and classics), and philosophy. “CIP” refers to the Classification of Instructional Programs. Please see the Note on the Data Used to Calculate Humanities Degree Counts and Shares for an explanation of the differences between the two sets of degree counts.

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-10cc: Number of Master’s Degree Completions in the Humanities, by Discipline, 1987–2014

* Values for the disciplines included in the “Other” category are provided in Supporting Table II-10cc.

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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II-10dd: Number of Doctoral Degree Completions in the Humanities, by Discipline, 1987–2014

* Values for the disciplines included in the “Other” category are provided in Supporting Table II-10dd.

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 the “core” disciplines as its focus 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.