Humanities Indicators
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Higher Education  >  Graduate Education
 
Humanities’ Share of All Advanced Degrees Conferred
(Updated August 2017)

While the number of advanced humanities degrees substantially recovered from the declines of the 1970s and early 1980s (even taking into account recent declines in the number of master’s degrees), the field’s share of all degrees completed at the master’s and doctoral levels has fallen to historic lows in recent years.

Findings and Trends

  • In 2015, the share of all master’s and professional-practice degrees awarded to students in the humanities fell to 3.5%, the lowest level recorded in the three decades for which data are available (Indicator II-10aa). Humanities master’s degrees awarded each year since the late 1980s have constituted less than 5% of all degrees awarded at the master’s and professional-practice degree levels, with the high-water mark for the field occurring in the early 1990s.
  • At the doctoral level, the percentage of degrees awarded in the humanities fell to its lowest level in 2007 (7.9%), rose back above 9% in 2012, then fell back to 8.7% in 2014 and 2015 (Indicator II-10bb). At the doctoral level, the percentage of degrees awarded annually in the humanities from the late 1980s to 2015 has been consistently at least double the share conferred at the master’s level.
  • A subset of humanities disciplines—English language and literature, history, languages and literatures other than English (including linguistics and classics), and philosophy—can be traced back to 1948 (and are designated “Historical Categories” in the figures), providing a longer-term view of the field. These data reveal that graduate humanities programs experienced a substantial loss in their share of degree completions over the 1970s and 1980s, as the number of all advanced degrees awarded in the historical categories fell relative to the number completed in other fields. While the absolute number of advanced degrees conferred in the humanities did rise from its mid-1980s low, the number of advanced degrees awarded in other fields increased more quickly. As a result, the field’s share of all master’s and doctoral degrees thus remained well below the record levels observed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
  • From the early 1990s (the height of the humanities’ recovery from the 1980s slump) to 2015, the share of all master’s and professional-practice degrees awarded in the historical categories of humanities degrees fell by over a third. At the doctoral level, however, the share increased fairly steadily in the 1990s and then shrank through 2007. Despite upticks in several subsequent years, as of 2015 the share remained considerably lower than the 10–14% plateau that lasted from 1948 until the early 1970s and was less than half of its 1973 high.
  • While the share of all master’s and first professional degrees awarded in the humanities has been falling gradually since the early 1990s, the share conferred on graduates from the health and medical sciences has been rising unevenly, from a low of 12.1% in 1991 to a high of 19.2% in 2015 (Indicator II-10c). Conversely, the shares for degrees awarded in education and business have experienced recent declines. The share of all master’s and first professional degrees that were granted in education, for instance, shrunk from 26.6% in 2007 to 18.3% in 2015. The decline in business degrees was less pronounced, with the share contracting from 21.7% in 2011 to 19.9% in 2015. Law has also experienced a loss of share, with its percentage declining from 10.5% in 1987 to 5.8% in 2015.
  • While the share of all doctoral degrees that were granted in the humanities fell slightly from 1987 to 2015, the shares awarded in engineering and also the health and medical sciences increased substantially (Indicator II-10d). Engineering’s 18.2% share of doctorates in 2015 was almost half again as large as the field’s share in 1987. In 2015, the share of doctoral degrees awarded in the health and medical sciences was more than double the level in 1987 (8.7% as compared 3.7%).[1]
II-10aa: Master’s Degrees in the Humanities as a Percentage of All Master’s and Professional Degree Completions, 1949–2015

* English language and literature, history, languages and literatures other than English (including linguistics and classics), and philosophy. 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 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-10bb: Doctoral Degrees in the Humanities as a Percentage of All Doctoral Degree Completions, 1949–2015

* English language and literature, history, languages and literatures other than English (including linguistics and classics), and philosophy. 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 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-10c: Shares of All Master’s and Professional Degrees Awarded in Selected Academic Fields, 1987–2015
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 (http://www.humanitiesindicators.org).
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II-10d: Shares of All Doctoral Degrees Awarded in Selected Academic Fields, 1987–2015

* The appearance of a dramatic shrinkage in 2010 in the share of all doctorates that went to students of the natural sciences is attributable to a recent change made by the National Center for Education Statistics in the way it asks institutions to classify doctorates. Please see the “About the Data” section of this indicator for details. (See also the Note on the Definition of Advanced Degrees for a description of this shift and the steps the Humanities Indicators has taken to help ensure comparability of the advanced degree counts it provides for different years.)

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 integrated science and engineering resources data system, WebCASPAR.

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Endnotes

[1] The appearance of a dramatic shrinkage in 2010 in the share of all doctorates that went to students in the health and medical sciences is attributable to a change made by the National Center for Education Statistics in the way it asks institutions to classify doctorates. Please see the “About the Data” information associated with this indicator for details. (See also the Note on the Definition of Advanced Degrees for a description of this shift and the steps the Humanities Indicators has taken to help ensure comparability of the advanced degree counts it provides for different years.)