Natural selection is taking a toll on humanities. They're evolving to survive.

In 2014, humanities degrees made up only 6.1% of all bachelor's degrees—which marks the lowest share since 1948. 

Today's students are abandoning traditional liberal arts education in favor of practical programs that they're hoping will help them land good jobs and pay off their average $35,000 student loan debt, Douglas Belkin writes for the Wall Street Journal.

While humanities degrees declined, degrees in homeland security, parks and recreation, and healthcare skyrocketed—between 2005 and 2015, the share of degrees in these fields jumped from 9% to 17%.

This shift begs two questions:

  • At what point do institutions moving away from the humanities stop being able to call themselves "liberal arts" institutions? and
  • How can higher ed keep liberal arts education from dying out completely?

In response to the first question, Vicki Baker, an economics professor at Albion College, estimates that a third of the colleges that referred to themselves as liberal arts schools in 1990 do not fit this description anymore—at least, not in the traditional sense.

But colleges are beginning to change the way they teach and offer the humanities, hoping they can hold onto this identity—and, in turn, answer the second question: how to keep liberal arts alive.

What people on Twitter are saying about the future of liberal arts in a technical-skill-hungry workforce

Data from Burning Glass points to one solution, which is to supplement the humanities with technical skills. According to the data, when humanities students also learn a practical skillset, they:

  • Become qualified for double the amount of jobs; and
  • Raise their average salary potential by $6,000.

Employers want candidates with a mix of skills

To expose more students to technical skills, some colleges are adding technical course requirements for humanities majors while others are incorporating those skills into the humanities coursework itself.

At Emory University, a new degree program now combines math and statistics alongside English, history, and anthropology. To fulfill the program requirements, students must take a total of seven classes in statistics, computer science, and math alongside their chosen humanities discipline.

Smith College is taking the latter approach, by working data science and analytics directly into all courses—even the most qualitative humanities classes. In one Shakespeare course, Smith students are taught to use data science and analytics techniques to chart, quantify, and analyze Shakespearean vocabulary as it appears in today's dictionaries (Belkin, Wall Street Journal, 4/24).

See how Susquehanna University increased English enrollments by 80% in two years


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