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Fisher Fine Arts Library

Credit: Annie Luo

Penn has seen a decline in students graduating with degrees in the humanities and in the social sciences since 2003 while simultaneously seeing a spike in the number of students graduating with degrees in natural sciences. 

From 2003 to 2017, Penn saw a 37.18 percent decline in degrees awarded in the humanities and a 19.57 percent decrease in degrees awarded in the social sciences, according to data from the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences.

Broken down by individual major, there were overall declines in the degrees given to eight of the 10 largest majors in the College between 2005 and 2014, although there were fluctuations year to year. The majors with the largest declines were History (46.63 percent), Psychology (45.71 percent), and Economics (43.38 percent). The College Office declined to provide the most recent numbers on degrees given by major between 2014 and 2018.

There has also been a sharp decline in the number of College students who are double majoring. In 2005, 1,694 students graduated with a second degree – making up 22 percent of graduates in the College. In 2014, that number dropped to 1,534 students, which made up only 14 percent of College students.

In the face of this downward trend in the humanities, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Paul Sniegowski, said the College and its advising office will continue to do what it has always done and encourage students to pursue their interests, rather than what they think is best for their job prospects.

That sentiment was echoed by Janet A. Tighe, dean of freshmen and director of academic advising. 

"We want to help students identify their interests and passions, not sell them something," she wrote in an emailed statement. "Our role is to facilitate exploration not to dictate the direction to students."

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, among others, point to the 2008 economic recession as the main reason for scaring students away from the humanities by causing a major philosophical shift in how young adults see the purpose of their university education. 

A long-running annual survey taken by the Higher Education Research Education Institute at UCLA found that new college freshman listed their primary reason for attending college as getting a better job. Decades before the recession hit in 2008, the most cited reason was to learn about what interested them.

"I suspect that a number of students are not serving themselves as well in that regard as they could," Sniegowski said. "They may be doing what they think they should do for their careers rather than what they are truly interested in."

The downward trend in the humanities and social sciences is underscored by a surge in students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. Biology majors, for example, increased 25.20 percent from 2005 to 2014 – from 123 to 154 degrees, respectively. 

In the face of this STEM surge, some professors in the humanities say they want to re-emphasize the importance of their field. 

"Humanities, in a way, haven't really positioned themselves as a selling point," Christina Frei said. As the Executive Director of Language Instruction for the School of Arts and Sciences, Frei has seen overall interest in the languages decline over the past few years as Penn begins to place less emphasis on language studies. 

Last year Wharton rolled back its language requirements. 

"It might be a moment that the humanities need to really have a more conscientious effort and position themselves much more clearly," Frei said. 

One caveat of the decline in the humanities and social sciences is that the number of students enrolled in these areas remains higher than degrees given. 

The University's "General Education" curriculum necessitates the need for students to take courses in writing, foreign language, mathematics, and other subjects. A portion of these requirements emphasize the humanities, so regardless of what degree a student pursues they will be exposed to a liberal arts education.

"To some extent the university can control its enrollments by changing the general requirement curriculum and changing what courses can count," English professor James English, the director of the Price Lab for Digital Humanities, said. "Departments, if they are eager for more enrollments, as many departments are, they can play that system. They try to put a course together that will satisfy a general requirement that's outside their normal area."

Despite the current trends towards STEM and natural sciences, English contends that one should not roll out "narratives of crisis and decline."

"There is that sense of fear that STEM is taking over society and the educational apparatus, and the humanities are becoming a more beleaguered piece of higher education," he said. "That is the case to some degree nationally and in certain kinds of institutions more than others, but I don't think, especially at a place like Penn, that it's helpful to go into a defensive and antagonistic mode."