Is Your Employer in Trouble? Part 4

A changing landscape

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) has reported on trends in U.S. undergraduate study. Between 2012 and 2015 (the year for which the most recent data is available), the number degrees conferred in nearly every humanities discipline has declined, with decreases of 17 to more than 20 percent in fields such as archaeology, history, classics, and English. Private, not-for-profit institutions used to award a far higher percentage of humanities bachelor’s degrees than did public universities. Now the percentages are nearly identical, and both percentages are declining in parallel. According to the AAAS, “After 10 consecutive years of declines, the humanities’ share of all new bachelor’s degrees fell below 12% in 2015 for the first time since a complete accounting of humanities degree completions became possible in 1987.”

If we look at the share of bachelor’s degrees in different disciplines as a portion of all bachelor’s degrees conferred from 2012 through 2015, we see the following changes:

    • Humanities: – 12%.
    • Social and behavioral sciences: – 27%.
    • Business: – 8%.
    • Education: – 13%.
    • Health and medical sciences: + 21%.
    • Engineering: + 16%.

If one digs into the national data, one discovers that the total number of bachelor’s degrees awarded during the same period increased by only 6% — indicating a shift among undergraduates toward study in technical and scientific fields.

I will make a few suppositions about this data and point to trends that I think are more probable than merely possible:

First, a greater portion of undergraduates are now entering college with a defined (or at least less vaguely defined) outcome in mind. They pre-select an area of study that they think will lead to that outcome, and they see the traditional undergraduate curriculum — eight semesters of a mishmash of courses — as less and less relevant to their needs. This means American SLACs [Small (rather than Selective) Liberal Arts Colleges], which have historically touted the benefits of a broad liberal arts-focused education extending over four years, need to find a more effective marketing strategy.

Second, as a consequence of shifting preferences, a greater portion of undergraduates are taking humanities and social science courses at community colleges to knock out the general education requirements that four-year institutions have used to trap students, and their tuition dollars, for eight semesters. These courses are viewed as mostly identical commodities regardless of which institution is offering them, and community college tuition is far less than that of four-year institutions. As I mentioned in my Inside Higher Ed essay, private colleges without strong brands need to prepare for dwindling enrollments in curricular areas that have traditionally been profit centers.

Third, if your employer’s business and education programs attract the largest shares of its undergraduate students, it is going to be increasingly difficult to profitably compete for these students. This is especially true of private institutions that lack a strong brand, because they risk bottom-feeding for students who can’t get admitted to more prestigious institutions. Since on average business and education majors tend to be the least prepared and lowest performing college students, these students as a group probably require the greatest amount of financial aid and academic support and thus contribute less net revenue on a per head basis than is commonly assumed.

Fourth, the rapid increases and decreases in the popularity of different fields of study occurred after students who entered college before the start of the 2008 recession had either graduated or otherwise stopped attending. At the undergraduate level, the recession induced an acceleration in the long-term structural transformation of U.S. higher education. Post-2008 conditions are the new normal.