Would Free College Boost Humanities Majors?

Jeanne A. Curley

Last week, without putting much thought into it, I put up a Twitter poll asking: “In your opinion would more students major in the humanities if college was tuition free?”

Recent IPEDS data shows that English, history, religion, and languages are all down at least 40% in terms of the number of majors since they peaked in the 2000sComputer science, STEM and medical majors have gobbled up the share that used to belong to the humanities.  

Let me stipulate to the biased nature of my sample. My Twittersphere is heavily populated with people either directly or adjacently affiliated with education, many of them (like me) in the humanities. They have been directly experiencing the decline of humanities disciplines throughout their careers. 

 The respondent choices were Yes, No, and Not Sure. 

Let me also stipulate to the not particularly thoughtful framing of the question. The ambiguity of “more” is pretty bad question design. The methodological limits of Twitter polls are pretty strict, but I could’ve asked for an open end response in the replies for people who answered “Yes” to gauge what kind of increase they had in mind.

But I wasn’t thinking about sample representativeness or question integrity or anything like that at the time. My brain burped up a question, and since we now have a mechanism to share that question with the world, I did so.

Now, my personal answer to my own question is “Not Sure.” Clearly I had some belief that tuition free college could make the humanities more attractive by making it less likely that students would graduate with significant debt, but I was (and am) uncertain about this proposition.

Tuition-free college would pre-suppose that there is a pent-up desire among students to major in the humanities that is being thwarted because of some kind of cost-benefit calculation, but while making the education less costly would be a boon, it would not change any post-graduate calculations around the employment and earning prospects of majors.

A couple of perceptive folks also pointed out that in many cases, the humanities-related experience students may be having in high school might not be particularly inviting when it comes to thoughts of future study. We could be looking at a pipeline issue.

In last week’s post, I argued that the Biden administration action on student loan forgiveness explodes the myth of how we finance the costs of college as a system meant to develop the human capital of individuals. If taking out loans in order to improve your overall economic prospects doesn’t actually result in improved economic prospects for vast numbers of college attendees, well that dog don’t hunt. 

But the explosion of the myth of how we finance college is not an explosion of the myth around which majors “pay off.”  

A recent survey by the Federal Reserve showed that 2 in 5 graduates wish they’d chosen a different field of study than what they majored in in college. The level of regret is highest for humanities and arts majors. 

The assumption in this Washington Post write-up of the data is that these regrets are explicitly about the earning potential of the majors, but the Federal Reserve survey contains no follow-up questions on the underlying reason for the regrets. 

I previously wrote when a similar survey was released in 2017 on why I am a skeptic about these “regret” narratives around college major. Depending on when you asked me about my own choices about where I went to college, what I majored in, what I studied in graduate school, you could get me to admit to some measure of regret.

Regrets ask us to measure an idealized road not traveled against reality, a tricky matchup for reality to win on a snapshot question. 

That said, that humanities majors are high on the regret scale does suggest that perhaps the reality for those of us with those degrees is, for whatever reason, not ideal. Personally, I believe that it’s my humanities degree that has allowed me to adapt to a rapidly changing world, a case I make to students whenever I’m able, but one which often meets with skepticism from those in the younger generations who tell me that the world has changed quite significantly since I was their age.

That’s my point! I say. The world has changed a lot, which is why it makes sense to not focus on a narrow technical specialty and instead learn how to think critically and adapt to different circumstances.

They remain skeptical.

By now, you readers have probably deduced that I’m deliberately withholding the results of the survey, and you would be correct. I’m doing this because one of the things I want to model around the kinds of questions we ask about education – How should we pay for it? What should students major in? How do we determine the degree return on investment? – are actually enormously complicated and when we ask each of these questions, there are a huge number of “it depends” factors going on underneath.

This tweet thread by Alanna Gillis, a sociologist who studies student choice of majors, highlights several major factors that go into student choice of major beyond anticipated wages. Dr. Gillis also reminds us of what should be obvious, low pay for a college graduate is a function of labor markets, not the choice an individual made. 

For example, the teacher pay penalty hit yet another new high, with teachers making 23.5% less than comparable college graduates. 

Is a student who wants to be a teacher making the “wrong” choice because they are consigning themselves to a lifetime of wages below what their education could have delivered? When is this market going to correct itself?

I think, undoubtedly, tuition free college could be helpful to humanities disciplines, but only if we in the humanities continue to resist the narrow discussion around majors and ROI confined to things like wages. 

Of the 266 people who answered my survey question (“In your opinion would more students major in the humanities if college was tuition free?”) the breakdown was:

Yes – 74.8%
No – 8.6%
Not Sure – 16.5%

Personally, seeing that high percentage of “yes” votes gives me a good feeling about the future, even as difficult as the recent present has been. 

To me this suggests that an audience of primarily humanities-focused people maintains a belief in the worth of the humanities and that students would benefit from majoring in a humanities field.

Making this reality will take some doing, but I see some cracks in the narrative around what college is for, who should benefit from college, and how people benefit from college that may just allow us to sneak through with a broader message about all the different things studying the humanities has to offer.

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