Humanities Now!

By Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling

When it comes to college admissions, schools are always attempting to stay ahead of the curve. They try to anticipate what’s coming, what the world will soon need, examine their own trends, and adjust accordingly. The most popular disciplines are of course the ones with the most applicants and majors, often resulting in increased support and funding in those areas. But schools also hope to correct disparities in their application pools and maintain a balanced and intellectually diverse student body. From a college admissions perspective, the shift toward what are commonly called STEM fields has resulted in a glut of prospective students competing in those fields, while competition among students focused on time-honored but less “hot” areas like history, English, philosophy, and the arts has dropped significantly. Colleges know the value of the humanities and are actively looking for students devoted to them. If you’re passionate about such things, don’t hesitate to buck the STEM trend. There are benefits—both now and later.


While many of us generally agree that it is important to know and understand history and culture, the study of such things has fallen dramatically out of favor among college undergraduates. Humanities departments are struggling, as students increasingly pursue what they see as more “practical” fields like business or computer science, disciplines that seem more suited to high paying careers. As is often the case, though, the reality is more complex than conventional wisdom suggests. The evidence shows that humanities majors do not necessarily have fewer job prospects and lower earnings in the long run. Indeed, some studies have shown that such majors may have a leg up.


The humanities have gone through similar crises before. In his Atlantic Monthly article, “The Humanities Are in Crisis,” Benjamin Schmidt outlines the history of these crises and the myths on which they were based. As Schmidt’s headline proclaims: “Students are abandoning humanities majors, turning to degrees they think yield far better job prospects. But they’re wrong.” And yet, Schmidt notes that the recent decline in humanities majors has been sharper than previous examples. Degrees in history, for example, have dropped 45 percent since 2007, and English majors have dropped by almost 50 percent since the late 1990s. Inside Higher Ed has also documented this phenomenon in its recent article, “The Vanishing History Major.” Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that the most dramatic shifts have occurred at the elite research universities, traditionally regarded as bastions of humanities-centric education in America. These schools have witnessed a drop in humanities majors from 17 percent a decade ago to a mere 11 percent today. In “As Humanities Majors Decline, Colleges Try to Hype Up Their Programs,” Jeffrey Selingo also details this trend, explaining that colleges are not only recognizing it, but also beginning to work to reverse it. As Selingo reports:

To avoid further slippage in humanities majors, elite colleges and universities have resorted to an all-out campaign to convince students that such degrees aren’t just tickets to jobs as bartenders and Starbucks baristas. Colleges are starting early with that push. Stanford University writes letters and sends brochures to top-notch high-school students with an interest in the humanities to encourage them to apply, says Debra Satz, the dean of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. Prospective students can also take humanities classes at Stanford while still in high school.


Other schools have implemented similar strategies to counteract STEM-domination. Grinnell College now notifies all incoming first year students about the importance of the humanities to a liberal arts education. Macalester College encourages professors of humanities courses to include career-oriented components in their syllabi, and those teaching science classes to introduce humanities-focused thinking. The University of North Carolina will soon require all incoming students to take one of their interdisciplinary courses co-taught by multiple professors from across the sciences and humanities.


Many blame the decline of humanities majors on the Great Recession and the resulting anxiety among those coming of age since then. Of course this anxiety makes sense given the shrinking job pools that have confronted recent college graduates. Nonetheless, the myth of the jobless English major is just that–largely a myth. The reality is more complicated. And comforting. Evidence suggests that the notion of the humanities major as not financially viable is statistically unfounded. Students with humanities degrees made, on average, slightly less than finance or computer science students, but about the same as biology or business students. Where differences in average income were found, those differences were so slight as to be negligible. As Schmidt explains, “the difference between humanities majors and science majors, in median income and unemployment, seems to be no more than the difference between residents of Virginia and North Carolina.”


Some studies have even shown that humanities degrees can be a boon to prospective job candidates. In a recent study by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, 91 percent of employers agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major.” Employers also listed a host of additional humanities-oriented skills, such as the ability to negotiate diverse points of view and understand societies and cultures outside the United States. On the flipside, labor experts are beginning to question whether a STEM-only education will properly prepare students for the future economy. Although the market certainly seems to favor fields such as computer science, the rapid rate of technological advancement and the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) suggests that many jobs now performed by people (e.g., writing intelligent algorithms) might soon be obsolete. Of course, the world will continue to need engineers, doctors, and scientists, but it will also need people versed in culture, history, society, and politics to negotiate whatever comes next. And remember, this is not an either-or. Science and the humanities are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. (Double major, anyone?)


Now, let me temper all my humanities enthusiasm by making it clear that students should always follow their own passions. A humanities student might have certain advantages in college admissions right now, but such interests cannot be faked. And if you’re a computer geek or fascinated by genetics, please don’t think twice. But if you’re more moved by a Toni Morrison novel than by a biology lecture, embrace it. And don’t despair! The tide seems to be turning. As schools double down on the promise of a good liberal arts education, with its emphasis on critical and creative thinking, communication skills, diverse perspectives, and the crucial lessons of history, an established interest in the arts, society, and history can set you apart. Despite the negative rhetoric you might hear, this is a great time to pursue the humanities. In fact, it might be just the moment you’ve been waiting for.