The Great Recession Never Ended for College Humanities

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Humanities education in the U.S. is in free fall. And the decline probably shows that the nature of what American students want out of college education is changing — more young people are in it for the money.

Northeastern University history professor Benjamin Schmidt recently wrote a long blog post in which he showed, very convincingly, that the number of American undergraduates majoring in the humanities has dropped in the last decade. Five years ago, Schmidt thought that it might be a temporary blip after the Great Recession. But now he has changed his mind:

The last five years have been brutal for almost every major in the humanities … there is, in the only meaningful sense of the word, a crisis … Rather than recover with the economy, [the] decline accelerated around 2011-2012.

Schmidt documents the decline with a number of data points. From 1990 through 2008, degrees in English, history, foreign languages and philosophy represented about 8 percent of all U.S. college degrees; today, it’s just under 5 percent. Classical studies, the arts, religion and comparative literature have all shared in the decline to varying degrees. Only communications, ethnic and gender studies, and linguistics appear to be holding steady, though the latter two represent only about 0.3 percent and 0.12 percent of all degrees, respectively. Humanities degrees haven’t just fallen in percentage terms, but in absolute numbers as well.

Why is this happening? Schmidt lists some theories, but the timing of the downturn seems to make it clear that economics plays a role. The job market was tough for much of the decade after Great Recession. More than that, the aftermath of the financial crisis likely dealt a permanent blow to many Americans’ expectations of smoothly rising prosperity and wealth; for the generation that came of age during and after the recession, the knowledge that economic disaster could strike at any time is now seared into their worldview.

That feeling of permanent danger and scarcity means that young people probably no longer feel as if they can afford to major in whatever strikes their fancy. Instead, they feel like they have to take the safe path and go for the money. And they can’t help but notice that — with some exceptions — the chances of finding a job generally tend to be higher for science, technology, engineering and math graduates than humanities graduates:

The Great Recession Never Ended for College Humanities

Also, students with STEM and economics degrees tend to earn more money than their peers in the humanities:

The Great Recession Never Ended for College Humanities

The theory that college kids are going for the money is bolstered by several other trends that Schmidt reports. As would be expected, STEM and economics majors have gained market share, as have professional-oriented majors in areas like health. Soft social sciences like sociology and anthropology, which often don’t yield great results in the job market, are also on the decline. A third fact that supports the theory is that humanities majors enjoyed a huge spike in popularity in the economically booming 1960s, only to fall in the 1970s when the economy slowed.

So whatever other reasons are leading students to ditch the humanities and soft social sciences for STEM and economics, money seems to be part of the story. The job market has now recovered from the Great Recession, but it will be several years before a generation goes to college whose formative years weren’t shaped by bad economic times.

So will the humanities recover? If the 1970s plunge in humanities degrees is any indication, the drop in humanities majors could be long-lasting. Humanities departments are likely to shrink in response to lower undergraduate enrollment. That, combined with a dearth of older humanities graduates to serve as role models, will probably mean less student interest for a long time.

Meanwhile, money might not be the only reason students are fleeing the humanities and soft social sciences. The rise of graphics software, spreadsheets and statistical software means that we live in an increasingly data-driven age. It’s noteworthy that Schmidt, a historian, makes his argument that his field is in decline using graphs and numbers rather than flowery prose.

One force might help humanities education to recover — the rise of machine learning. Many who follow the rapid progress of machine learning — sometimes labeled artificial intelligence — believe that soft skills will become increasingly important to the job market in the coming decades. With machines doing much of the technical work now done by engineers, the theory goes, companies will need humans to interact with other humans — providing customer experience, making strategic decisions and building business relationships.

Those are all tasks that the humanities, with their emphasis on empathy, persuasion and human emotion, are well-equipped to provide. Even if machines don’t end up taking engineers’ jobs, a greater focus on persuasive writing and constructive relationship-building interaction in college humanities courses — rather than close reading of texts or other academic-style activities — would probably make these majors seem more practical and career-oriented to prospective students. Instead of hectoring students to focus on personal well-roundedness and general education, the humanities would be well-served by touting the practical benefits of the soft skills they impart.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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