A Higher Education: The Bottom Line

Photo by Dom Fou

During the epic times of the baby boom generation cohort coming of age, the humanities were burgeoning fields of study. They were popular on college campuses. The liberal arts flourished. Students looked forward to having rewarding work lives, but learning about the world and the intellectual development of humanity through the arts, languages, history, literature, the social sciences, and philosophy was popular.

This definition of the humanities includes learning or literature concerned with human culture, especially literature, history, art, music, and philosophy. Many students combined the study of the subjects in the humanities with business courses, education, or the sciences. Some studied the humanities for the pleasure of learning and learning how to think critically. Many students wanted to learn about the world with a measure in depth. Others augmented the humanities with so-called practical subjects so they would be employable after graduation.

In 2012, a good year for the humanities, there were 235,966 bachelor degree graduates with a concentration of study in that area of study. By 2018, that figure had dropped to 202,665 humanities graduates.

By the end of the 2021-2022 academic year there were 2,123,000 graduates, and of those graduates, 437,302 were in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, the so-called STEM concentrations, with 146,573 humanities graduates. The trend of subjects studied and the number of graduates in those fields tells an obvious story of career/vocational choices and fewer and fewer humanities students. The impact on college and university departments is apparent with fewer liberal arts professors and departments and more STEM professors and departments.

Many college students, burdened with ever-expanding tuition and skyrocketing living costs for study, chose to study STEM subjects. Many graduates, even if humanities majors as undergraduates, turn to graduate studies in medicine, law, business, or other professional courses of study.

Here is an assessment of humanities programs:

“Even prior to the pandemic, humanities departments were being closed and students were gravitating toward other fields in their selection of majors.

“From 2012 to 2020, the annual number of humanities bachelor’s degrees awarded fell almost 16 percent, with some of the larger disciplines, such as history, losing almost one-third of their majors. At the same time, the number of degrees awarded to students in the stem fields has grown substantially: for instance, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering and in the health and medical sciences increased by more than 56 percent over the same period. As a result, the humanities have greatly diminished as measured by their share of students earning undergraduate degrees. As of 2020, the humanities were conferring less than 10 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, the lowest level on record (Daedalus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, August 2022).”

Informal discussions with students at one of the larger campuses of the State University of New York system in Albany, New York revealed that most students studied math, business and other STEM subjects, concentrations that could provide them with employment after graduation.

Average student debt ranges from the $30,000+ range for public colleges and universities to $50,000+ for private schools. Many students report far more debt after four years of college than the figures above. A professional degree can add multiples of thousands of dollars to a student’s debt burden.

The pause in the student loan repayment program is scheduled to end on September 7, 2023, and the Biden administration has proposed a lesser student debt cancellation, which like the program set to end, may not stand in the Supreme Court.

“During the payment pause, interest rates were placed at 0%. They’ll return to their current fixed rates when repayment begins. Despite the U.S. Department of Education announcing [sic] earlier this year that the payment pause, which had been extended multiple times, was coming to an end, experts say they fear some borrowers did not adequately prepare for repayment. That’s particularly true for those who were counting on loan forgiveness (US News and World Report, July 18, 2023).”

A local cultural venue in western Massachusetts closed its internship program after that program operated for decades on an expansive campus. Photographs from past decades show many actors and other support staff taking part in a range of activities. The theater productions from the internship program were of the highest professional quality, although the interns were students. A  recent play, a musical, at the same cultural venue had a few young people from local communities in the cast, but the play was staged primarily by professional actors.

This theater company is now exploring creating a new internship program and that effort is being run by a current professional actor from the company.

American Theatre (July 2023) reports the closings of theater companies across the US and notes that corporate sponsorship of those programs has fallen in recent years. The effects of the Great Recession and the Covid-19 pandemic took a serious toll on theater attendance, but why corporate funding would decrease in the face of astronomical corporate profits is unknown. Fewer theater venues necessarily mean few students in college and university theater programs.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).