Humanities Indicators
Facebook Twitter YouTube
Higher Education  >  Undergraduate Education
 
Bachelor's Degrees in the Humanities
(Updated May 2017)

Since the Second World War, the trend in humanities bachelor’s degree completions has fluctuated, rising sharply beginning in the mid-1950s, plummeting through the 1970s and early 1980s, and then partially recovering. The number of humanities degrees conferred has declined sharply in the most recent years for which data are available.

Findings and Trends

  • The 212,512 humanities degrees conferred in 2015 was 5% below the previous year and 9.5% below the recent high-water mark of 234,737 degrees in 2012 (Indicator II-1a). Despite the recent declines, the number of humanities degrees awarded in 2015 still remained above the number conferred each year before 2005.
  • Data on the entire range of humanities disciplines is available only back to 1987, but an extended historical perspective is available for several of the largest disciplines (English language and literature, history, languages and literatures other than English, linguistics, classical studies, and philosophy), which have been labeled “Historical Categories” on the graph. The number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in these disciplines has been falling more quickly than for the field as a whole—with a decline of 9% from 2014 to 2015 and 17% from 2012 to 2015. The 96,337 degrees awarded in these disciplines constituted just 45% of the degrees awarded in the humanities field, the lowest level recorded since 1987 when a more complete accounting of degree completions in the field first became possible. (See “Disciplinary Distribution of Bachelor's Degrees in the Humanities” for a detailed breakdown of the changing shares for each discipline.)
  • The disciplinary categories tracked by the Department of Education before 1987 fail to capture degrees in certain older disciplines (such as communication and the humanistic study of religion and the arts). The pre-1987 data also fail to record the rise of several new disciplines in the field (such as area and gender studies) and that cannot be tallied separately using these earlier data. Nevertheless, the historical categories highlight the substantial waves in the number of humanities bachelor’s degrees awarded since the end of the Second World War. From the mid-1950s to 1971, the number of bachelor’s degrees in the historical categories rose steadily to a peak of just over 136,000 degrees conferred. But that number fell sharply throughout the 1970s and into the mid-1980s, so that by 1984 the disciplines represented by the historical categories were awarding less than half the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in the early 1970s. By the late 1980s, years for which both measures of degree completions can be calculated, the number of degree conferrals rose substantially, plateauing somewhat in the mid-1990s but reaching post-1987 highs in 2009–2012 before falling again.
  • After 10 consecutive years of declines, the humanities’ share of all new bachelor’s degrees fell below 12% in 2015 for the first time since a complete accounting of humanities degree completions became possible in 1987 (Indicator II-1aa).
  • Degrees conferred by disciplines among the historical categories fell in 2015 to approximately 5% of all bachelor’s degree completions—the lowest level in records extending back to 1949. As recently as the mid-1990s, the share for the historical categories was over 8%, with the highest postwar level having reached 17% in 1967. 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, which kept the humanities’ share well below the mid-1960s high.
  • In 2015, the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities (just under 12%) was less than a third the size of the 37% share for the sciences (health and medical, natural, and behavioral and social combined; Indicator II-1b). The humanities’ share was less than two-thirds the size of that for business and management field, which awarded 19% of all bachelor’s degrees.
  • The only major fields with larger shares of bachelor’s degrees in 2015 than a decade earlier were engineering, the health and medical sciences, and the natural sciences. While all the other fields experienced some loss in the share of degrees conferred, education experienced the largest proportional decline. The field’s share shrank 27% from 2006 to 2015, surpassing declines of 20% in the humanities and 13% for business and management. (Comparisons among these fields should be made with caution, however, given the considerably larger baseline number of degrees awarded in business and management.)
  • Within the humanities, almost every discipline experienced a decline in the number of degrees awarded from 2012, the recent high point, to 2015 (Indicator II-2c). The largest proportional declines occurred in archaeology, history, and selected interdisciplinary studies (down more than 20%), but degrees in classical studies and area studies also fell by 19%, and English degrees fell 17%.
  • The only large humanities discipline to experience an increase in the number of degrees from 2012 to 2015 was communication, which increased 8% (even after excluding professional degrees in the discipline). The humanistic side of communication surpassed English in the conferral of bachelor’s degrees for the first time on record in 2014, and the gap continued to grow in 2015. In the most recent three years, the number of degrees in communication rose by 3,770, while the number of English degrees fell by 8,755.
  • The number of degrees in three other humanities disciplines increased from 2012 to 2015. Linguistics grew by 161 degrees (an 8% increase), while the number of comparative literature degrees increased by 14 (2%). The number of bachelor’s degrees in folklore was also higher, but 2012 was the first year in which degrees were tabulated for the discipline, so the growth (from 5 to 17 bachelor’s degrees) may just reflect improved reporting by colleges and universities.
II-1a: Bachelor’s Degree Completions in the Humanities, 1949–2015*

* 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.”
** The “Historical Categories” are the limited set of humanities disciplines that have been tracked by the federal government since 1949. These disciplines include 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 further explanation of the differences 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 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).

About this DataRelated Indicators
../cmsData/xls/suppII-1a.xlsx../cmsData/ppt/indII-1a.ppt../cmsData/pdf/indII-1a.pdf
II-1aa: Bachelor’s Degree Completions in the Humanities as a Percentage of All Bachelor’s Degree Completions, 1949–2015*

* 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.”
** The “Historical Categories” are the limited set of humanities disciplines that have been tracked by the federal government since 1949. These disciplines include 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 further explanation of the differences 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 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).

About this DataRelated Indicators
../cmsData/xls/suppII-1aa.xlsx../cmsData/ppt/indII-1aa.ppt../cmsData/pdf/indII-1aa.pdf
II-1b: Shares of All Bachelor’s Degrees Awarded in Selected Academic Fields, 1987–2015
Source: Office of Education/U.S. Department of Education, Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS). IPEDS data were 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).
About this DataRelated Indicators
../cmsData/xls/suppII-1b.xlsx../cmsData/ppt/indII-1b.ppt../cmsData/pdf/indII-1b.pdf
II-2c: Number of Humanities Bachelor’s Degree Completions, by Discipline, 1987–2015

* Values for the disciplines included in the “Other” category are provided in Supporting Table II-2c.

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 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).

About this DataRelated Indicators
../cmsData/xls/suppII-2c_1.xlsx../cmsData/ppt/indII-2c.ppt../cmsData/pdf/indII-2c.pdf