Humanities Indicators
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Higher Education  >  Graduate Education
 
Advanced Degrees in the Humanities
(Updated August 2017)

The past six decades have seen dramatic growth, marked decline, and then partial recovery in the completion of advanced degrees in the humanities. In the most recent years for which data are available, the trends have diverged at the master’s and doctoral levels, as the number of master’s degrees started to fall sharply (similar to the recent downturn in the number of bachelor’s degree completions) while the number of new doctoral degrees remained at a relatively high level.

Findings and Trends

  • The humanities field conferred 28,253 master’s degrees in 2015, but this marked the third consecutive year of declines and an 11% reduction from the number awarded in 2012, the recent high point (Indicator II-10a). Even with the recent declines, however, the number of master’s degrees conferred in 2015 was still higher than in every year from 1987 (the first year for which data of this kind are available) to 2007.
  • Humanities programs awarded 5,891 doctoral degrees in 2015—the largest number recorded in data that extend back to 1987 (Indicator II-10b). From a low of 3,110 degrees in 1988, the number of new humanities doctoral degrees awarded annually rose almost uninterruptedly to 4,994 in 2000, dipped to approximately 4,700 degrees from 2002 to 2007, and then rose again in almost every subsequent year to the number recorded in 2015.
  • Data on the entire range of humanities disciplines are available only back to 1987, but an extended historical perspective is available for certain 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 graphs. For this subset of the field, the greatest postwar increase in the number of graduate-level degrees awarded occurred from 1955 to the early 1970s, with more than a four-fold surge 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. The number of advanced degrees conferred in these humanities disciplines then tumbled. By the mid-to-late 1980s, humanities programs were awarding fewer than half the number of such degrees they had conferred in the early 1970s.
  • The decline in advanced-level humanities degrees in the “historical categories” reversed in the late 1980s. By 1994 the number of master’s degrees had risen to 69% 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 18,492) but then fell over the next two years to 16,651 master’s degrees (77% of the peak number) in 2015.
  • 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 “historical categories” reached the height of their recovery in 1998, when the number reached 83% of the 1973 peak. Doctorate completions then declined through 2007 before picking up again in the latter part of the decade. The number of doctorates conferred in the core humanities disciplines increased to more than 4,000 doctoral degrees in 2012 (for the first time since 1976) and remained near that level though 2015.
  • 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 2015. Most of the humanities disciplines experienced a decline in numbers at the master’s degree level, with the most pronounced declines experienced by the disciplines that award the largest number of degrees (e.g., history degrees declined by 14%, and general humanities/liberal studies fell by 29%). Even the humanities-oriented areas of the communications discipline, which experienced sustained growth in baccalaureate degrees up to 2015, saw a 9% decrease in master’s degrees from 2012 to 2015. In contrast, the disciplines awarding the largest numbers of doctoral degrees experienced only a slight decline (e.g., English, with a 1% drop) or an increase (e.g., history and LOTE increased 2% and 3% respectively).
II-10a: Master’s Degree Completions in the Humanities, 1949–2015

* The “Historical Categories” are the limited set of humanities disciplines that have been tracked by the federal government since 1948. 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 difference 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).

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II-10b: Doctoral Degree Completions in the Humanities, 1949–2015

* The “Historical Categories” are the limited set of humanities disciplines that have been tracked by the federal government since 1948 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 difference 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).

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II-10cc: Number of Master’s Degree Completions in the Humanities, by Discipline, 1987–2015

* 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. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).

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II-10dd: Number of Doctoral Degree Completions in the Humanities, by Discipline, 1987–2015

* 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. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).

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