January 31, 2012

Number of Humanities Degrees Awarded Plummets

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As Cornell prepares to begin construction on a $61 million building adjacent to Goldwin Smith Hall devoted entirely to the humanities, information from the University Registrar indicates that the number of degrees awarded in the humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences has plummeted over the last five years. College administrators, though, point out that the number of humanities majors has ro steadily rise when viewed from decade to decade.

In 2011, the University conferred 49 percent fewer degrees in history, 37-percent fewer degrees in English, 40-percent fewer degrees in foreign languages and linguistics and nearly 61-percent fewer degrees in philosophy and religious studies than it did in 2006.

However, the published trends affecting the undergraduate humanities do not extend to the number of master’s or doctoral degrees awarded at Cornell. On average, the numbers of master’s degrees distributed in English and literature, history and philosophy have increased since 2006. Additionally, the number of graduate degrees awarded in the humanities has remained relatively steady over the last five years.

There is a widely-held conception that the decrease in humanities majors is due, at least in part, to the struggling economy, in which employers may favor graduates with more practical degrees.

According to U.S. Census data obtained by The Wall Street Journal, comparative literature and U.S. history are among the ten least employable majors, each with an unemployment rate hovering above 10 percent.

Meanwhile, several majors, including agricultural sciences and engineering tracts, were deemed the “most employable” by the Census data collected by The Wall Street Journal. These departments have seen their enrollment increase, albeit slightly, over the last five years at Cornell.

Prof. Jon Parmenter, director of undergraduate studies for the history department, acknowledged the “attitude of pragmatism among college students and their parents” in part derives from the “combination of substantial tuition costs and rough economic conditions in recent years.”

However, Parmenter also questioned the basis of this attitude and the potentially negative effects it has had on young college students choosing majors. Despite concerns history majors have raised about obtaining employment, “a wide range of employers today still recognize that a history major imparts a range of fundamental and highly adaptable skills,” he said.

Parmenter pointed to the profiles of recent history graduates on the department’s web page, which range from paralegals to financial consultants and journalists, to “reveal the diversity of career options open to history majors” who understand “how to compose and execute an analytical argument in persuasive fashion.”Prof. Masha Raskolnikov, director of undergraduate studies for the English department, echoed Parmenter’s concerns.

“I continually feel bad that there’s this misconception out there that what a person majors in somehow does or does not guarantee employment,” Raskolnikov said. “By the time you’ve been out of college a few years, nobody remembers or cares what you majored in. They care about whether or not you know how to learn.”“It matters a lot more for you to have something interesting to say for yourself — which English majors undoubtedly do — than to have majored in something you never really learned to like,” she added.

Conflicting ViewsSeveral University officials questioned whether the struggling economy is responsible for the decline in humanities majors, or if there has even been a significant decline in the number of students majoring in these fields.

Parmenter said that the 49-percent decrease in history degrees between 2006 and 2011 is “a rather selective use of the data.” 2006 represented the extreme high of humanities degrees awarded in the past decade, while 2011 was the extreme low. In reality, Parmenter said, the volume of majors has varied considerably between those extremes since 2000, and “is on its way back up for 2012.”

Data from the registrar’s office indicates a 61-percent drop in religious studies and philosophy majors over the past five years — from 31 students to 12. However, in 2009 and 2010, there were 27 students graduating with religious studies and philosophy degrees — a very small drop compared to 2006.

Prof. G. Peter Lepage, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said that the percentage of college students in the humanities, per decade, has steadily increased since 1980. Lepage attributed some decline in the humanities to counting students by the number of bachelor’s degrees obtained, without taking into account students obtaining degrees that spanned more than one discipline.

“People used to average 1.1 majors; they now average 1.3. The information from the registrar won’t reflect that,” Lepage said. “Someone majoring in history and economics will only register as half a humanities degree and half a social sciences degree. It’s not a very good measure of overall interest in the humanities.”

“The number of students majoring in English, in particular, looks artificially low when you look at the data from the registrar,” he added, suggesting that English is a popular option for a double major and thus underrepresented.

Simple percentages calculated from the registrar data, Lepage said, also fail to take into account the year-to-year variation in the number of students enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences. If 100 fewer students graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences one year, one would expect to see a decline in the humanities numbers even when the overall percentages of students majoring in the humanities are holding relatively steady, Lepage said.

Even so, Lepage acknowledged that since 2006, there has been a significant decline — by nearly 23 percent — in students majoring in the humanities.

While Lepage said he could not attribute the decline in humanities degrees solely to the state of the economy, he acknowledged the tendency of students to “get nervous” in hard economic times and “credential up” by either switching majors or double majoring in a major like economics –– a major that has experienced massive growth in recent years.

“If the recession truly hit in January of 2009 and students declare their major in their sophomore year, then the state of the economy really would not affect what majors students were choosing until last year,” LePage said. “Looking forward, the big, big question for me is where the biggest economic disaster since the Depression shows up in the mix.”He added that dips in the percentages of students in any given field occur periodically.

“What [Cornell] is interested in going forward is whether the numbers will bounce back as they have in the past or whether a bad economy might stymie that rebound,” he said.

While the impacts of the Great Recession on Cornell students’ major choices remain unclear, several current students cited more personal reasons for switching majors or colleges.

Lauren Wippman ’13 transferred from Arts and Sciences into the School of Hotel Administration during the first semester of her sophomore year at Cornell. Wippman said she was undecided in Arts and Sciences, although she “definitely wanted to do a French minor.”

Wippman said her motivation for the shift was partially motivated by her dissatisfaction with Arts and Sciences requirements, but “mostly because [she] liked the structure of the Hotel School a lot better” and preferred the structure of its two-year core curriculum.

Wippman said the state of the economy had very little to do with her transfer or major choice, although she added that the difficulties her sister faced in the job hunt after graduating with a French degree from Cornell in 2010 has, in retrospect, made her appreciate her decision to switch schools.

“There are always jobs in hospitality, no matter how badly the economy is doing,” Wippman said.

Robert D’Ambra ’12 said he switched out of the College of Arts and Sciences into the College of Engineering during his sophomore year because he was “more than a little bit lost.”

“I was really unsure of what to do in Arts and Sciences and was a little overwhelmed by the different options and tracks,” D’Ambra said. “I eventually just settled on engineering as a solid backup when I couldn’t decide.”

“The economy really had nothing to do with it,” he said.

However, many students who enrolled undecided in Arts and Sciences said they were not dissuaded from pursuing humanities degrees.

Daniel Adelson ’13 described himself as the “quintessential undecided student” in the College of Arts and Sciences during his first two years at Cornell.

“I definitely bounced around from class to class trying to find something that really stuck out at me,” Adelson said.

Toward the end of his sophomore year, Adelson said he eventually settled on a major in English because the English classes he had taken were the ones he had “enjoyed the most” during his first few semesters.

“College is a time to learn about the world — English, history, philosophy, language,” he said. “If you want to do business or public policy, there’s plenty of time to learn that in the future or on the job.”

Original Author: Will Ryan