Humanities Indicators
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Higher Education  >  Undergraduate Education
Most Frequently Taken College Courses

While U.S. Department of Education data provide a detailed picture of the number of undergraduate students majoring in various humanities fields, information regarding humanities course-taking—by humanities majors and nonmajors—is more elusive. Such data are not compiled as frequently, but those that are available reveal general trends in college course-taking over the last part of the 20th century, shedding some light on the extent to which young Americans are bringing humanistic knowledge and skills with them into civic and occupational arenas after college.

Findings and Trends

  • Two humanities courses, freshman composition and U.S. history, were among the ten college courses most commonly taken by students who graduated from high school in the years 1972, 1982, and 1992 and who ultimately completed bachelor’s degrees (Indicator II-6).
  • A greater percentage of students graduating from U.S. colleges and universities took a freshman composition course than any other course, and the proportion increased over time. Among members of the 1992 high school class, 85% of those who went on to obtain their bachelor’s degrees took such a course, up from 75% in the 1970s.
  • Although college students’ U.S. history course-taking waned in the 1980s, by the 1990s it had risen again. Among members of the 1992 high school class who later obtained bachelor’s degrees, 44% took a U.S. history survey course in college.
  • After freshman composition and U.S. history, introductory literature and Western civilization/culture courses were the next most popular college-level humanities courses taken by the largest shares of bachelor’s degree–completing members of the high school classes of 1972, 1982, and 1992 (although both courses experienced a decline in share between the 1972 and 1992 graduates). Over the three cohorts, literature and art history classes also experienced net decreases in the percentage of students enrolled. On the other hand, courses in introductory philosophy, general and comparative religion, music history/appreciation, and Spanish saw increases.
  • The share of college students taking introductory or intermediate Spanish increased more than for every other type of course except freshman composition. The percentage of the high school class of 1992 who obtained college credit for these courses while on their way to obtaining a bachelor’s degree was 10 percentage points higher than for members of the class of 1972 (since the initial rate of Spanish course-taking was lower than that for freshman composition, this 10-point gain for Spanish represents a much larger percentage increase than that experienced by composition). The increase is not surprising in light of the growth in high school Spanish course-taking.
  • Other than freshman composition and U.S. history, no college humanities course attracted more than 32% of the 1972, 1982, and 1992 high school class members who went on to complete bachelor’s degrees, with most courses in the humanities drawing a considerably smaller proportion.
II-6: College Courses Most Commonly Taken by Bachelor’s Degree Recipients, 1972–1992*

* Ranked by the average percentage of students across all three cohorts to have taken the course.

Source: Clifford Adelman, The Empirical Curriculum: Changes in Postsecondary Course-Taking (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education, 2004); Adelman analyzes data from the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972, High School and Beyond/Sophomore Cohort, and the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988.

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