College Grads Regret Majoring in Humanities Fields

Going to college today is all about getting a good job, and majoring in philosophy or art history just doesn't make sense for most students.
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  • The number of humanities bachelor's degrees awarded continues to decline.
  • Humanities majors rank highest among graduates who regret their academic choice.
  • Soaring tuition costs and uncertain job prospects have turned students away from these disciplines.
  • Long-term ROI for liberal arts graduates, however, remains high.

I was a history major in college. Do I regret my choice of major? No.

Do I believe my major is relevant to my professional life? Yes.

Do those two answers make me the exception to the rule? Almost.

Just under half of college graduates with bachelor's degrees in humanities fields regret their choice of major, and many find little connection between their education and their profession. It's no wonder fewer students each year are opting to major in a humanities discipline.

How significant is the decline of the humanities? And is this a cyclical phenomenon or the new normal?

Humanities Majors Live With Regrets

We've all seen the iconic — and ironic — "no regerts" tattoo. Many people do live with "regerts," whether or not they choose to emblazon such a sentiment on their forearm.

“According to a new study by the Federal Reserve, almost half the college graduates who majored in a humanities field have one significant regret in common: their choice of major.”
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According to a new study by the Federal Reserve, almost half the college graduates who majored in a humanities field have one significant regret in common: their choice of major. Some 48% of them live with this regret. On the low end of that scale, 24% of engineering graduates harbor such feelings.

Why are humanities majors twice as bummed as engineering graduates? Well, they really aren't, says a report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. They're just slightly less content.

Compared to those who earned degrees in other fields, humanities graduates had a higher rate of unemployment (3.6% vs. 2.9% in 2018). If they were employed, they were less satisfied with their jobs (85% vs. 89%) and their salaries (74% vs. 78%).

And just under 90% said they were satisfied with their life in general, compared to just over 90% for non-humanities graduates.

At the same time, about 38% of humanities graduates said their degree has no relation to their job. The survey average among all college graduates was about 25%.

About 40% of those with humanities degrees said they wouldn't choose the same major again, a more favorable finding than the Federal Reserve study, though that compares to roughly 36% across all fields. Only about 25% of engineering and health sciences graduates would choose another major.

The problem for humanities graduates, concludes the report, boils down to two interrelated concerns: rising college costs and student debt on one hand and relatively low salaries on the other.

Humanities Majors Are Increasingly Rare

That combination of factors is evidently enough to scare away tens of thousands of would-be humanities majors.

In 2020, the number of college students earning a bachelor's degree in a humanities field fell for the eighth consecutive year. Over that time, the number of humanities degrees awarded dropped by 25%. By 2020, they constituted less than 10% of all bachelor's degrees awarded, an all-time low figure.

The situation is actually worse than these numbers suggest, as the Hechinger Report details. These calculations include the field of communications, which accounts for more than 25% of humanities graduates. If you exclude communications from the humanities — some institutions consider the field a social science — then the numbers are even more sobering.

In fact, the more "traditional" humanities disciplines — English, history, philosophy, and foreign languages and literature — accounted for a mere 4% of bachelor's degrees awarded in 2020. From 2009-2020, English majors dropped by a third, and history majors fell by 35%.

To what fields are students migrating?

Not surprisingly, they're choosing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, along with business and health disciplines. The number of business majors grew by 60% from 2000-2020, and engineering majors more than doubled during that time. Health science majors, including nursing and biology, tripled over those two decades.

"There's a pretty significant change underway," historian and digital humanist Ben Schmidt told The Washington Post. "The [humanities] numbers have dropped by 50 percent, and there's no sign that they're going to rebound."

Schmidt credits the Great Recession of 2008 — and President Barack Obama — for accelerating the shift away from the humanities.

"In the period of the Great Recession, you had Barack Obama out there saying we need more STEM majors and fewer English majors," he said. "That was a story you were hearing from a lot of people in influential positions … and I think that made a difference."

But could these numbers rebound? Might this recent trend simply be a cyclical event?

“As the Hechinger Report points out, student interest in the humanities has waxed and waned for more than half a century.”
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As the Hechinger Report points out, student interest in the humanities has waxed and waned for more than half a century.

Following World War II, college students, confident in their financial futures amid a healthy economy, embraced fields such as history and English. During the economic turmoil of the 1970s, students fled these fields for more practical pursuits, such as business. As conditions improved in the 1990s and early 2000s, the humanities experienced a rebirth.

Then came the Great Recession, which once again reversed the trend. But during the ensuing years, the humanities numbers failed to rebound despite a stout economy, and there's no indication they will anytime soon.

Humanities Thrive at Community Colleges

One counterintuitive aspect of this phenomenon relates to choice of major and institutional type. At the most elite universities, those with longstanding traditions of supporting humanistic studies, humanities majors are down considerably.

A 2018 Atlantic article points out that the top 30 universities, ranked as such by U.S. News & World Report, were then awarding as many degrees in computer science as they were in history, English, languages, philosophy, religion, area studies, and linguistics combined.

Where are humanities numbers holding steady? At community colleges.

A 2021 American Academy of Arts & Sciences report notes the number of associate degrees awarded in the liberal arts and humanities — granted, perhaps reflecting a broader scope than just humanities — has risen steadily since the 1980s, reaching a high of more than 413,000 in 2018. That year, the share of humanities and liberal arts degrees was 43.7%, compared to 31.7% for vocational fields such as business and 20.4% for health sciences.

Given that community college students on the transfer track often take liberal arts courses to satisfy general education requirements at the baccalaureate level, these figures make some sense. Yet these students aren't continuing to study liberal arts and the humanities once they transfer.

It bears mentioning, too, that the rate of humanities majors among minority students is roughly the same as the national average. As the Atlantic piece notes, humanities enrollments at historically Black colleges and universities remain relatively healthy.

Despite these declining student numbers, universities continue to produce thousands of humanities Ph.D.s who, not surprisingly, face a daunting academic job market where demand for faculty positions far exceeds supply. Many cobble together adjunct gigs while trying to land a rare and coveted tenure-track job. Others turn to employment options outside higher education.

Long-Term ROI Remains Strong for Liberal Arts Grads

Today's students consider college a gateway to career opportunity and success. A New America survey asked college students why they're in school. Their top answers? To improve employment opportunities (91%), to make more money (90%), and to get a good job (89%).

That may seem obvious, but it wasn't always so. In the 1970s, three-quarters of first-year students said college was essential to developing a meaningful philosophy of life. Only one-third said the same about being well-off financially.

Many of those students majored in humanities disciplines. Nowadays, students have turned to more practical academic pursuits directly aligned with job prospects.

In an era of high tuition costs and burgeoning loan debt, the consideration of return on investment (ROI) looms large. But are short-term career concerns keeping students from better long-term payoffs?

Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce examined the return on investment of liberal arts colleges and found that the value of a liberal arts degree increases over time. After 10 years, the ROI of a liberal arts college degree is $45,000 below the median, but by 40 years, it's almost $200,000 higher.

Presumably, many liberal arts graduates reflected in this study majored in STEM fields, and others pursued professional degrees that inflate ROI figures. Yet there's no denying that abilities honed through the study of humanities — critical thinking, written and oral communication, ethical reasoning, and persuasive argumentation — are highly valued in today's workplace.

Students passionate about studying humanities but worried about employment prospects can craft an academic experience that satisfies both desires. Many liberal arts colleges, for example, offer career and technical education certificates to ease the transition into the job market.

"We don't want to lose the richness of the liberal arts," John Petillo, president of Sacred Heart University, told The Washington Post. "At the same time, we want to prepare you for life out there."