March 20, 2016 by Luke Mason
In 2009-2010, nearly as many recession-shaken students at four-year colleges and universities graduated with humanities degrees as STEM degrees.
Since the Great Recession, the number of STEM majors in bachelor’s degree-and-above programs has mushroomed, going from 388,000 graduates in 2009-10 to 550,000 in 2015-16—43% growth.
And degrees in the humanities, programs like philosophy and foreign languages? They’ve declined -0.4%.
Emsi studied recently released data on college degree output from the National Center for Education Statistics and found that the share of STEM degrees rose rapidly from 2009-10 to 2015-16 in almost every state. This acceleration came at the same time the share of humanities majors—after trending at a similar output level as STEM majors in the years preceding the recession (see below chart)—took a hit in several states.
Nationally, the share of bachelor’s-and-above science, technology, engineering, and math degrees has gone from 15% to 21%. And the share of humanities degrees, 14%, is the same as in 2009-10. (Meanwhile, skilled trades programs continue to be de-emphasized, though graduates in welding and other similar programs has increased as we’ll show later.)
The emphasis on STEM programs and jobs has permeated politics, education, and the workforce system. Governors have talked about or taken steps to defund college programs that don’t lead to jobs. The educational system has pushed scads of STEM programs, in elementary schools and even earlier. And businesses have increasingly asked for workers with STEM or more general technical skills.
The rise of STEM majors and the decline of the humanities, then, could be a sign that colleges, schools, parents, and students are responding to market needs. Or it could simply be that more people started viewing college primarily as a means to get a job or find a career, just as the economy cratered.
The STEM vs. humanities dynamic, however, is different state by state.
In California, the largest producer of bachelor’s-and-above graduates, humanities degrees dipped -3% while STEM degrees increased 39%. In New York, the second-largest producer of graduates, the number STEM majors shot up even more quickly (45%) and humanities was flat (1%).
In Texas, humanities degrees outnumbered STEM degrees as the recession was ending. But in 2015-16, the last year of available data, Texas produced nearly 12,000 more STEM majors than humanities grads.
Humanities fared even worse in Washington (-17% growth), Kansas (-15%), and Pennsylvania (-14%). These are the three states where humanities degrees have plummeted the most from 2009-10 to 2015-16.
Meanwhile, Wyoming and Maryland led the nation in 2015-16 with the share of bachelor’s-and-above degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math. Wyoming’s STEM concentration was 34% in 2015-16 (up from 25% in 2009-10) and Maryland’s was 30% (up from 20%).
Vermont and Virginia had the highest share of degrees from the humanities, at 23% and 22%, respectively, in 2015-16. The two states have taken divergent paths, though: Vermont’s number of humanities degrees fell 5% from 2009-10 to 2015-16 and Virginia’s rose 11%.
Then there are the states where both degrees areas have gone wild. New Hampshire led the nation in STEM and humanities degree percent growth—88% for STEM and 54% for humanities.* West Virginia, Arizona, and New Mexico saw big jumps in both as well.
See our Tableau visualization above for state-by-state trends.
*New Hampshire is home to Southern New Hampshire University, which has a large online presence and produced over 1,400 humanities grades in 2015-2016 and over 750 STEM grads.
Does the rise in STEM degrees mean the needs of businesses are being better served? Yes and no.
Sure, humanities degrees have only loose connections to growing occupations in the job market. But many employers value the well-rounded skills, like critical thinking and written communication, that humanities and liberal arts grads can provide. (See the compelling defense of liberal arts degrees from Wilson Peden of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Fortune.)
Not all STEM grads, meanwhile, go into STEM fields. Nor do all humanities grads become English lit professors.
The Humanities Indicators, a project from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, used microdata from the American Community Survey to find that 14% of humanities majors with advanced degrees worked in legal occupations in 2013 and 5.8% worked in health care. Among terminal bachelor’s holders in the humanities—those who don’t go on to an advanced degree—14% worked as managers and 3.2% worked in computer occupations in 2013.
We used definitions from NCES to group program categories for STEM and humanities.
The Digest of Education Statistics, part of NCES, defines humanities using eight broad program groupings: area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies; English language and literature/letters; foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics; liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities; multi/interdisciplinary studies; philosophy and religious studies; theology and religious vocations; and visual and performing arts. (The Digest puts history in a separate category, and so we did not include it.)
For STEM, we used the definition in a 2009 NCES report on students who study in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Like humanities, this definition includes eight broad program offerings: mathematics and statistics; science technologies/technicians; physical sciences; biological and biomedical sciences, agricultural sciences; engineering; engineering technologies; and computer and information sciences.
Looking more broadly than STEM vs. the humanities, several NCES data points illustrate that not all students are taking the career-focused education route, or at least not aligning their education to in-demand careers. The below numbers are for all award levels, not just bachelor’s and above.
On the other hand, some program trends show students are taking labor market signals. The number of law school graduates, amid the declining legal job market, declined for the third straight year and are down 20% since a high of nearly 47,000 in 2012-13. And although registered nursing only saw a modest degree bump, family practice nursing—a much smaller and more specialized program—added more total graduates and grew 35% from 2014-15.
On the skilled trades front, where degree data is traditionally lacking, the welding technology and electrician programs each increased their output 9% from the previous academic year. More than 90% of the 52,000 welding and electrician completions in 2015-2016 came via short-term certificates, perhaps a sign that the apparent shortage of tradespeople could be dissipating soon.