- The humanities and liberal arts are on the rise at community colleges, with the number of associate degrees awarded in those fields nearly doubling from 2000 to 2015, according to a new study from the Community College Research Center.
- In 2015, 410,000 associate degrees were awarded in the liberal arts, up from 218,000 in 2000. Their share as part of all associate degrees also grew from 38% to 41% over the same time period.
- Meanwhile, the share of bachelor's degrees awarded in the liberal arts declined, from 17% to 13%.
Contrary to prevailing wisdom, the CCRC report found that humanities and liberal arts "remain a large, robust part of the U.S. postsecondary education sector," said Clive Belfield, one of the report's authors.
And that's partly because associate and four-year degrees, regardless of major, involve a significant amount of liberal arts coursework. More than one-fifth (21%) of the credits students earned for a two-year STEM degree, for example, were in the humanities. That's compared to 38% of total credits for students who earned a two-year liberal arts degree.
Such trends could bode well for employers, who have long lamented the lack of soft skills in their job recruits. A 2018 survey of 200 business and academic leaders, for example, found that new hires were "not meeting (their) expectations in such skills as emotional intelligence, negotiation and persuasion, and, notably, complex reasoning."
The economy needs people with social literacy and communication skills — the kind that the humanities and liberal arts fosters — even as the nation become more dependent on technology, Belfield told Education Dive.
"Everybody assumes we are being replaced by robots, so they think, ‘Better get a science degree,'" he said. "Whereas, if you think about it, the robots will be better at science than at communications and other visual and aural skills that (humanities and liberal arts) provide."
The CCRC report bolsters findings from a separate recent study, which found the number of associate degrees in humanities and liberal arts more than tripled between 1987 and 2015, from 113,300 to 363,500.
Additionally, a related CCRC study found there's plenty of value in humanities associate degrees, as they're as good or better than STEM and other degree programs at predicting how students will fare once they transfer to four-year colleges.
Still, some sound a cautionary note about the rise of two-year humanities degrees. Harry Holzer, co-author of the book "Making College Work: Pathways to Success for Disadvantaged Students," notes that only about 14% of students who earn an associate degree in liberal arts complete a bachelor's degree six years later — and that such programs have a "very low" labor market value.
Indeed, an analysis last year from Burning Glass Technologies found that only 32,000 job postings in 2016 asked for applicants with associate of arts degrees and that two-year programs in technical fields tended to pay off better for students.
However, Holzer views taking humanities courses as a positive. "(Students) can gain more communications and more of the soft skills that industry says they don't see," he said.