Thursday, December 14, 2017

Sharp Declines in Philosophy, History, and Language Majors Since 2010

As I was gathering data for last week's post on the remarkably flat gender ratios in philosophy over time, I was struck by a pattern in the data that I hadn't anticipated: a sharp decline in Philosophy Bachelor's degrees awarded in the U.S. since 2010.

In the 2009-2010 academic year, 9297 students received Bachelor's degrees in Philosophy in the U.S. In 2015-2016 (the most recent available year), the number was only 7507. In the same period, the total number of Bachelor's degrees increased from 1,597,740 (completing 1,684,011 majors, including double majors) to 1,922,705 (2,019,829 including doubles). In 2009-2010, 0.58% of graduating students majored in Philosophy. In 2015-2016, 0.39% did. [See Note 1 for methodological details.]

Looking more closely at the year-by-year data, the decline in absolute numbers is entirely in the most recent three years, and quite precipitous:

2010: 9297 philosophy BAs (0.58% of all graduates)
2011: 9309 (0.56%)
2012: 9376 (0.54%)
2013: 9439 (0.53%)
2014: 8837 (0.47%)
2015: 8198 (0.43%)
2016: 7507 (0.39%)

As a fan of the Philosophy major, I am alarmed!

A broader look at the data is partly reassuring, however: There was a similarly precipitous increase in the numbers and percentages of philosophy majors in the early 2000s, as displayed in the graph below. So maybe we're just seeing the pop of a philosophy bubble?

[click to enlarge and clarify]

For further context, I examined every other broad category of major with at least 100,000 graduating majors since the 2000-2001 academic year (27 broad majors total). Since 2010, only two other broad majors have declined in absolute number by at least 15%: History and English. Foreign language isn't far behind, with a 13% decline in absolute numbers. So Philosophy's decline seems to be part of a general decline in the main traditional humanities majors. (The three biggest gainers: Computer Science, Health Science, and Natural Resources.)

I've graphed the data below. You'll need to click to expand it to see the whole thing legibly; apologies for my incompetence with the blog graphics. (I've thickened and brightened English, History, and Philosophy. Note also that the English line is mostly obscured by the Philosophy line in recent years.)

[click to enlarge]

I've put the raw numbers for all major categories in CSV here, if you'd like more detail.

Finally, I looked at recent trends by institution type (Carnegie 2015 basic classification). As you can see from the chart below, the decline appears to occur across most or all institution types. (The top line, for four-year faith-related institutions, is jagged presumably due to noise, given low total numbers.)

[click to enlarge]

I'm not sure what to make of this. I suppose Wittgenstein, who reportedly advised aspiring students to major in anything but philosophy, would have approved. Thoughts (and corrections) welcome!

ETA (9:55 a.m.): Several people have suggested that it relates to the Great Recession of 2008. I don't think that can be the entire explanation, since the recessions of the early 1990s and early 2000s don't correlate with sharp declines in the major. On Facebook, Todd Yampol offers this interesting analysis:

In many states, business interests have put pressure on the state government to prepare students for the "jobs of the future". They complain that high school & college graduates don't have the specific skills that they're looking for. Also, there has been more and more emphasis on undergrads to finish in 4 years (for a 4-year degree). In California and many other states, there is a state-sponsored "finish in 4" initiative. They provide funding to the state universities for software & other projects that will help students finish in 4 years. They only way to do this, given all the crazy requirements these days, is to determine your major very early & stick with it. This is definitely the case at CSU. Not sure about UC. I believe this initiative started in CA around 2012. I've been working with CSU since 2014. I'm not saying that this is inherently a bad thing. It's just the environment we're living in. I come from a liberal arts background, and I see the value in being a well-rounded person.

I think it comes down to the question "what is the purpose of a state university?" In some states like Wisconsin (where I grew up), there has been a lot of pressure from the (ultra-conservative) state government to dismantle the traditional approach to higher education & research, and turn the emphasis towards job training.

Anyway, the pressure for job skills & to finish in 4 years makes it difficult for young people to explore and find their true interests. How many freshman / sophomores know that they're interested enough in philosophy / linguistics / history / etc to declare it that early? I didn't declare linguistics until my very last semester (long story).

ETA2 (Dec 18): Some of the bump in the early 2000s is due to changes in NCES reporting. Starting in 2001, second majors are reported, as well as first majors. That accounts for that little jump from 2000 to 2001 (approx 0.40% to 0.48%) but not any of the increase from 2001 onward, after which the reporting remains the same.


Note 1: Data from the NCES IPEDS database. I looked at all U.S. institutions in the IPEDS database, and I included both first and second majors. Before the 2000-2001 academic year, only first major is recorded. I used the major classification 38.01 specifically for Philosophy, excluding 38.00, 38.02, and 38.99. Only people who completed the degree are included in the data. Some majors have different classification titles and criteria over the period, so I needed to make a few coding/grouping decisions. The most important of these was disaggregating the History subfield from the "Social Sciences and History" category in the 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 data. Although there are some category and coding differences over time in the dataset, the 2011-2012 to 2015-2016 academic years appear to have used exactly the same coding criteria.


Anonymous said...

I'd read a little while ago that people should look closely at the demographic details of these shifts. If STEM disciplines have become more welcoming to women, in particular, in recent years, then the shift of women from humanities to STEM programs may explain a significant amount of the shift.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, that might be a factor, Anon. My guess is that there isn't a big enough shift in other fields for this to be the primary explanation. For example, in the physical sciences, women have slightly decreased as a proportion of majors in the past several years. Race and ethnicity is another possibility along these lines, which I plan to examine soon.

George Gantz said...

Hi Eric - Interesting, but perhaps its all due to the economic crash in 2008. My wife and I had three college graduates that year - majors were econ/history, finance/statistics and zoology/Japanese. If the three of them had enrolled in 2008 instead of graduate, I suspect their choice would have been different.

It would be interesting to look at longer trends and see if my hypothesis holds. I graduated in '73, just before the hard times hit - and I recall hearing that the entire culture of incoming students in the late '70's had shifted to a much more conservative bent.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

George, that might be the case, but if so it must be combined with some other factors, since the recessions in the early 1990s and early 2000s don't correlate with sharp declines. It would be interesting to have data going back earlier. Those are harder to obtain, but I'm working on it.

Anonymous said...

There's a psycologist, at the university of Toronto, that has a theory about this. His name is Jordan Peterson. He has a podcast were he takes particular aim at the universities with guest, Camille Paglia. Check him out here:

Anonymous said...

glad to see more college grads will now have jobs with useable skills and not philosophy.

Anonymous said...

But people can't think very well these days either, right? <--Very employed PHI grad.

Anonymous said...

"More useable skills and not philosophy"--Please stop perpetuating this garbage fallacy.

"In 2013 the Association of American Colleges & Universities issued the results of a survey of 318 employers with 25 or more employees showing that nearly all of them thought that the ability to “think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems”—the precise objectives of any liberal arts education—was more important than a job candidate's specific major."

Anonymous said...

Philosophy grads are stilling winning the earnings race, so now we can tell them they have less competition from other phil grads.

Anonymous said...

Cynthia here: But there appears to be a slight graduation rate decline in the mid-nineties, which would be about the time a student enrolling in the early 90s downturn would be graduating. After that, it never really picked up again.

Another factor may be a possible decline in the availability of philosophy programs.

I agree with others who point out that the incentives to graduate in 4 years has the potential to affect our discipline. I am in Texas, and my public university is starting to develop and implement these incentive and restrictive structures.

Arnold said...

The sooner we get rid of the psychological 'stressors'...the sooner a "Brave New World" can come into being, providing a living for Corporate and Diogenes kinds of humans...

Anonymous said...

Very interesting! Thank you for the post. At my own institution, a regional comprehensive without a grad program in philosophy, we face all the pressures you mention as well as a 150% surcharge for credit hours in excess of the number of credits required for a degree program (and this number is set by the *first* major one declares, even if one switches majors). Students are also encouraged to declare a major as soon as possible; administration seems to think this is good for retention (one of our "performance funding metrics"). For reasons unknown (though what I expect to be turf protection), many degree programs, especially in STEM, are so credit hour heavy, that philosophy gets squeezed out as even a viable option for a minor, much less a second major. Additionally, administration does not provide proper support when faculty go on leave, effectively relying on existing faculty to cover colleagues' typical upper-division offerings (in service of our majors), thereby reducing the number of lower-division courses that are offered in a semester (the courses from which we recruit). We recently had a retirement as well, and so we've been asked to wait at least a year before filling that line. In the meantime, our capacity to recruit is consequently diminished and it seems unlikely that we will be allowed to keep that line.

harry b said...

Sorry to be boring, but I am curious even for anecdotal evidence about changes in credit taken (as opposed to majors). Our department experienced a spike in majors more or less coincident with the spike you show, but our total credits have changed much less (as you'd expect - -for most departments majors account for a smallish percentage of credits). Like you I'm a fan of the philosophy major, for the right students, but I'm more of a fan of getting students who are in less interesting majors (because of parental pressure, or short-sighted market thinking, or authentic preference) to take a couple of philosophy classes -- and really learn from them (which means we have to teach well, and not with the same goals or strategies we have for majors).

Dennis Ahlburg, an economist at Trinity University, has a volume in process looking at whether there is crisis in the humanities in various countries. His own contribution is on the US, and analyses data for humanities majors over several decades, which would give you some more context. (I can ask his permission to send a draft of his chapter to you if you like. I'm an author the UK chapter). I know he doesn't have data on credits, just majors.

Anonymous said...

I graduated with a double major in Philosophy and Computer Science. I loved being able to write about Kierkegaard as well as program in Ruby in my undergraduate years. That would be my recommendation for those prospective university students who want to study a liberal art discipline, but also learn an economic trade: DOUBLE MAJOR!!

(or Dual Degree, but that's more expensive and time-consuming admittedly.)

William Louis Ruff said...

I guess the lack of liberal arts majors explains how Russians were able to reach 100 million Americans during the election, and how the flat earth society surpassed 100,000+ likes.

Calvin said...

"In 2013 the Association of American Colleges & Universities issued the results of a survey of 318 employers with 25 or more employees showing that nearly all of them thought that the ability to “think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems”—the precise objectives of any liberal arts education—was more important than a job candidate's specific major."

Of course, I agree that philosophy majors tend to develop skills in critical thinking, and this is borne out in a variety of metrics (like standardized test scores). The problem is that it doesn't matter if philosophy majors are great at the things employers want if employers don't know that philosophy majors have these skills. Philosophy continues to have a PR problem such that no one knows what the hell we do (not even, on the deepest level, philosophers themselves).

Look, I was a philosophy major and I was able to find a job that I enjoy, and I can even say my background in philosophy was a good preparation. But the economy cannot productively absorb 8000 philosophy majors every year without a good number of them being underemployed, and with the economics of higher education being as they are, I can't help but think it's irresponsible to continue to offer the major without building in some kind of career preparation.

As to Eric's original question, I think the downturn in interest in the traditionally frowned upon majors is unquestionably correlated with the recession. Past recessions did not also include the feature of exorbitant tuition to the extent that present students see. When I was teaching I'd occasionally show a video about the extrinsic value of philosophy (read: $$$), but if I were still teaching I'd definitely invite the pre-law advisor or someone from career services to come speak to my class. And for those who think, "it's not my problem if my students get a job or not, I'm just supposed to explain the analytic/synthetic distinction," I would just say that I think the future of philosophy as a subject in universities, especially with the political culture we have now, is legitimately at stake.

Unknown said...

As a student at a california community college, I got on the bus to go home, a man got on with me and sat next to me on the ride. We talked, turns out he had just applied to teach philosophy at the college. he then proceeded to tell me how worthless his PhD in philosophy was. He could either write books, or teach. Being polite, and having to struggle to learn to edit what came out of my mouth, I nodded and looked concerned. But inside my head I'm shouting "YOU HAVE A DOCTORATE IN THINKING AND YOU DID NOT BOTHER TO THINK WHAT YOU WOULD DO WITH IT?" It's not like there are kings looking for court philosophers.

Arnold said...

To understand surviving on this planet--Graph today's world's public property verses private property to show when the continuation of the French Revolution may take place...
..Vive la Révolution...