Thursday, July 08, 2021

Schools with the Most Philosophy Majors

From 2010-2011 through 2018-2019 (the most recent available year), 75,250 students received philosophy bachelor's degrees at accredited colleges and universities in the United States, according to data I pulled from the National Center for Education Statistics.[1] That's a lot of philosophy degrees! Most of these students received their degrees from Penn or UCLA.

Just kidding! Kind of. Only 1272 were from Penn and 1123 from UCLA.

If you rank schools by the number of philosophy bachelor's degrees completed, the top ten schools together account for 10% of all of the philosophy bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States. This is a striking skew. During the period, 2434 accredited schools awarded bachelor's degrees. The majority of these schools, 1609 (66%), awarded no philosophy bachelor's degrees at all. Together, just 125 schools (6% of bachelor's degree awarding institutions) produced the majority of philosophy majors.

There are some perhaps surprising disparities. For example, although 4.9% of Penn's graduates majored in philosophy, other Ivy League schools had much lower percentages: Columbia 2.9%, Princeton 2.3%, Dartmouth 1.9%, Yale 1.7%, Harvard 1.5%, Brown 1.3%, and Cornell 0.6%. It would be interesting to know how much this reflects differences in entering students' intended majors, compared to policies or experiences affecting students after they arrive on campus.

Here are the top 20 schools by total number of philosophy bachelor's degrees awarded, 2010-2019 (in parentheses is the % of that school's graduates completing the philosophy major):

1. University of Pennsylvania, 1272 (4.9%)
2. University of California-Los Angeles, 1123 (1.6%)
3. University of California-Santa Barbara, 871 (1.8%)
4. University of California-Berkeley, 852 (1.2%)
5. Boston College, 787 (3.7%)
6. University of Washington-Seattle, 618 (0.9%)
7. University of California-Santa Cruz, 582 (1.6%)
8. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 576 (0.9%)
9. University of Arizona, 555 (0.9%)
10. University of Colorado-Boulder, 520 (1.0%)
11. University of Chicago, 517 (4.2%)
12. The University of Texas at Austin, 515 (0.6%)
13. New York University, 505 (1.0%)
14. University of Southern California, 502 (1.1%)
15. Columbia University in the City of New York, 485 (2.6%)
16. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 474 (1.1%)
17. University of California-Riverside, 461 (1.2%)
18. University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus, 460 (1.1%)
19. University of California-Davis, 449 (0.7%)
20. Florida State University, 442 (0.6%)

Altogether, these twenty schools account for 17% of the philosophy degrees awarded in the U.S. Any policy change that affected these twenty schools would have a substantial impact on philosophy education in the country.

Penn, Boston College, University of Chicago, and maybe Columbia stand out for not only having many philosophy majors but also a high percentage of philosophy majors.

Most of these schools also have prominent PhD programs in philosophy. Together, they likely also produce at least 17% of the philosophy PhDs in the country. Perhaps the presence of strong PhD programs -- with graduate student role models, rich department activities, and many T.A.-led sections in large courses -- contributes to the large number of undergraduate majors.

Here are the 20 schools with this highest percentage of philosophy bachelor's degrees awarded, excluding seminaries.[2]

1. Franciscan University of Steubenville (6.2%)
2. University of Pennsylvania (4.9%)
3. The College of Wooster (4.6%)
4. Colgate University (4.3%)
5. University of Chicago (4.2%)
6. Ave Maria University (4.1%)
7. University of Dallas (4.0%)
8. Antioch College (3.9%)
9. Wheaton College (3.9%)
10. Boston College (3.7%)
11. University of Scranton (3.7%)
12. Whitman College (3.7%)
13. The Catholic University of America (3.7%)
14. Wabash College (3.6%)
15. Bard College at Simon's Rock (3.5%)
16. Gettysburg College (3.5%)
17. Reed College (3.4%)
18. University of St Thomas (3.2%)
19. Cornell College (3.2%)
20. Kenyon College (3.1%)

Six of the schools are Catholic (Franciscan, Ave Maria, Dallas, Boston, Scranton, Catholic U, and St Thomas), two are big research powerhouses (Penn and Chicago), and the rest are liberal arts colleges. Overall, 0.5% of bachelor's degree recipients major in philosophy.

ETA 10:56 a.m.-2:04 p.m.: One possible explanation for Penn's large numbers and percentage is that NCES might be counting their "Philosophy Politics and Economics" major as philosophy [category 38.01]. Similar classificiation issues might also affect other schools. NCES doesn't clarify the exact title of every major nor its criteria for counting a major as "philosophy".


[1] All numbers include students with philosophy as either their first or their second major. As usual in my analyses, I exclude University of Washington-Bothell, which lists 689 philosophy majors but does not have any major with "philosophy" in the title. This appears to be a classification problem, perhaps of their "Culture, Literature, and the Arts" major or their "Law, Economics, and Public Policy" major.

[2] Excluded from this list are seminaries, some of which appear to award only philosophy degrees, one school that was operational during only part of the period, another which recently closed, and a third in which all students complete a liberal arts major classified as "philosophy" by the NCES.


Ed said...

What is the denominator for your percentages? Is it the total of bachelor's degrees awarded by the university? Or is it the total of bachelor's degrees awarded by the arts & sciences unit of the university?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

The former. Total bachelor's degrees recognized by NCES.

Anonymous said...

"Penn, Boston College, University of Chicago, and maybe Columbia stand out for not only having many philosophy majors but also a high percentage of philosophy majors......Perhaps the presence of strong PhD programs....contributes to the large number of undergraduate majors."

I don't think this is right. I can't speak to Penn, but the other three schools all have notable Big Books/core programs. BC has the Perspectives Program, Chicago has its Core Curriculum, and Columbia has Contemporary Civilization. So the more likely explanation is that schools with traditional Big Books programs expose students to material that they want to study further. This may be a lesson for our field.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting point, Anon! That could be an important factor. A related possibility (raised by a colleague on Facebook) is that some of these schools might require philosophy or philosophy/religious studies as a general education requirement that exposes students to philosophy early, drawing a portion of them into the major.

Kenny said...

USC also has a Philosophy, Politics, and Law program, that I believe was attracting as many majors as Philosophy by the last year I was there (without cannibalizing the numbers from Philosophy). I suspect this might be a part of it as well.

If there are some commonalities of top programs on this list that are out of departmental control (like having a Great Books program or being a Catholic university) and some commonalities that are in departmental control (like having a PPE/PPL type major in addition to straightforward Philosophy), that would be useful information for departments that want to increase their number of majors.

It would probably be worthwhile for someone from the APA to spend some time digging further into hidden commonalities some of these universities share.

Jon said...

Another item to keep in mind is that some universities make it easier (and others harder) to double major. Liberal arts colleges and, for example, Catholic universities often make it easier for students (and/or encourage students) to double major. I would be willing to wager that a high proportion of Philosophy majors in the U.S. have a second major in some other discipline (in contrast to, e.g., Electrical Engineering majors, who would be much less likely to complete a second major as part of their bachelor's program). As such, schools that make it easier to double major could very well see a higher number of (and percentage of) philosophy bachelor's degrees.

So, instead of (or, better yet, in addition to) using "total bachelor's degrees conferred" as the denominator, Eric could have used "total number of major outcomes," which can be just as easily obtained from NCES/IPEDS. (In the latter case, a single student double majoring in philosophy and mathematics would count as two "major outcomes."

Determining the "total number of major outcomes" would also make it easy to ascertain, for each institution, how many (and what percentage of) students graduating with a bachelor's degree were double majors.

Michael said...

Do these numbers include second majors?

At Chicago we have about 170-200 majors at the end of each year (including students who are graduating and students who are just entering the program at the end of second year), so I would have guessed more like 700+ majors graduating in a 10 year period. But this includes second majors who are now in fact about half of our total majors. We have a small interdisciplinary major called Philosophy and Allied Fields which I am including in this total, which probably accounts for 10 or so graduates each year (it's self-designed under the guidance of a faculty member -- it can be Philosophy and Physics or Philosophy and Literature or...). I don't know if that's counted in your figures. It's our major, in the sense that it's administered through the department. But students in it take a mix of philosophy courses (somewhat fewer than for a regular major) and courses in another field.

Concerning factors that attract students to our major -- the Core plays a role, especially one sequence that is more philosophy heavy, but we find most of our majors don't come through that sequence. Some of it is the nerdy rep of the place -- there is some self-selection going on at admissions and we get some students who have already studied philosophy in high school. Also, out major is not extremely demanding, which makes it easier to do philosophy as a double major (although we have a more demanding "intensive track", and whether in the intensive major or the regular major, many of our students far exceed the requirements and even take multiple graduate courses). We also run the very popular Night Owls program which, I believe, does draw students into the major. ( And of course, the all-around excellence of our teaching staff helps as well!

J.Vlasits said...

When I attended Columbia, one could major in Philosophy (and English, can't remember other humanities majors) with only ten courses, which seems to me to be on the low end. But that is also a bit misleading, because there are also a huge number of core curriculum courses.

Howie said...

Why do your figures show a mismatch between ranking of program and percentage of majors?

LFC said...

I was going to make the same point that anon did, above, about Chicago and Columbia. Both have long traditions of a version of the 'great books' core curriculum. That Chicago has a high percentage of philosophy majors is thus quite unsurprising, even if large parts of Hutchins's program did not survive his departure from Chicago in 1951 (hat tip, Wikipedia entry on Hutchins), although apparently they did at Shimer College.

p.s. There's also, e.g., St. John's College, which wd have a large percentage of philosophy majors if it had majors, which it doesn't.

Michael said...

Note that in the ranking by percentage of all majors with philosophy majors, several of the top schools are religious schools. Franciscan University of Steubenville (6.2%), Ave Maria University (4.1%), University of Dallas (4.0%), and The Catholic University of America (3.7%) are all fairly conservative Catholic schools. Wheaton College (3.9%) is a fairly conservative Evangelical School. Boston College (3.7%) and University of Scranton (3.7%) are Jesuit foundations, I think with somewhat less conservative reps than the four Catholic schools above; and University of St Thomas (3.2%) is another Catholic school (not sure about how conservative or liberal it is).

I mention all this for two reasons. First many of these schools have some sort of requirement that every student take philosophy, and this may lead students into the major. Second the more conservative religious schools often emphasize a sort of great books approach to humanistic education, which may also lead students to read more philosophy. (I am reporting vague impressions here and I'm open to correction on any of this.)

LFC said...

P.s. I read Michael's comment, above, after writing mine. He is obvs. writing from first-hand experience, so I defer to that.

Still, I don't think the history of these places is irrelevant, and the "nerdy rep" that Michael refers to probably owes at least something to the history of the institution.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all of the helpful comments, folks!

Kenny: Yes, that makes sense. And UC Riverside (#17 on this list) has a "Philosophy, Law & Society" major in addition to straight Philosophy (the two majors are ballpark similar in size, but probably cannibalizing each other to a substantial extent). From comments here and on Facebook, I'm getting the sense that many (most?) of these departments offer two "philosophy" majors, one straight Philosophy and one Philosophy plus something else. I agree that it could be useful for the APA to explore what factors drive these very different rates of majoring in philosophy.

Jon: Yes, double majors are important to philosophy. Here's a three-year-old post on the topic:
I don't think much has changed since then. It strikes me as likely that several of these schools make Philosophy attractive as a second major by requiring a relatively low number of units to complete the major.

Michael: Interesting about Chicago. My numbers do include second majors. Over the nine year period, NCES IPEDS lists 378 Chicago students as first major philosophy and 139 as second major philosophy, or 57 completions per year, so maybe some are leaving or graduating more slowly than expected? I don't know if Philosophy and Allied Disciplines majors are counted in the total. NCES doesn't provide information about the exact title of the major. It's possible that they are included, since some other schools appear to have interdisciplinary majors counted as "philosophy" if philosophy is the first word of the name of the major. What you say about self-selection into the university and teaching staff seems plausible to me.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

J Vlastis: Yes, relatively low unit requirements might be attractive to students, especially those looking to add a second major.

Howie: The percentage is the percentage of graduating students at that school who are philosophy majors. UCLA, for example, since it's such a huge school, can rank #2 in total number of philosophy majors while having 1.6% of students majoring in philosophy -- which is quite high but not as high as several other schools.

LFC and Michael: Yes, it does seem plausible that these are major factors -- probably both in terms of what types of students tend to choose those schools and in terms of a high rate of student exposure to philosophy after they arrive.

Matt said...

As someone who taught philosophy undergrads and also PPE courses at Penn, I'm pretty sure this must be including PPE majors. It's a pretty popular major, and a pretty good one. The requirements have changed over the years, but at least in the past, it required a fair amount of philosophical course work. But, it's perhaps worth noting that the major did jump in popularity at one point in the early 2010s when the Econ major increased its math requirements, and some "straight" econ majors switched to PPE. Still, over-all, it's a good major, good for Penn, and good for philosophy at Penn (although it could be better on the last score.)

Howie said...

I mean this: NYU has the best philosophy department in the nation. Why don't they have a higher percentage of majors? And Penn has a high percentage of majors but is middle tier. Is this just how the numbers crunch? Does this mean you can be a so-so philosopher but a fantastic teacher? I think Salinger said in a short story that a sos so artist can be a great instructor. What's the point of being a great philosopher if you have fewer students? Maybe I'm naively making assumptions about the academy- oh well

LFC said...

@ Howie

For one thing, you have to distinguish between graduate programs, which is what the 'Philosophical Gourmet Report' for ex. ranks, and undergraduate programs/majors, which is what this discussion is about. Not that they aren't in some ways perhaps connected, but they're two different things.

I was going to go on and say some other things, but I've decided not to bother and not to take up the space and to let people who are more invested in these matters than I am, and who know more about them on a first-hand basis, answer you if they feel so inclined.

David Velleman said...

The first comment in this thread was mine (no idea why I was identified as "Ed"). I am now responding to Eric's answer. If Eric is using total bachelor's degrees as his denominator, his comparisons are probably meaningless. NYU's total undergraduate enrollment is roughly 26,000. NYU's philosophy department is located in the College of Arts and Science, where the undergraduate enrollment is 7,600. The other 13,000 undergraduates are enrolled in academic units that do not offer majors in philosophy. I assume that comparing the percentage of philosophy majors among undergraduate who cannot enroll in a philosophy major is not meaningful.

Howie said...


I am curious. If I were an applicant to colleges with a strong interest in philosophy. would attending NYU vs Penn matter to the quality of my education or my career?
Apart from the general question of whether ranking of school makes a difference for undergarduate education

LFC said...

@ Howie

If the applicant were very sophisticated and knowledgeable and knew that he or she wanted to study w a particular professor (even as an undergraduate), then it might make a difference. Or maybe the applicant has an interest in a particular program, such as the Penn PPE mentioned by Matt above.

In general, though, and w the caveat that I don't know a great deal about either place, I'd think it would not make much difference one way or the other.

More important, on the whole, than *where* one goes to college is making the most of yr experience wherever you go, even if many applicants don't realize this. That at any rate is my view, fwiw.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Matt: Yes, probably!

Howie: NYU is still in the top 20 in the country in terms of number of majors coming through. I wouldn't expect a perfect correlation between total number of majors and quality of grad program, given the variety of likely influences on number of majors.

David: Interesting point, but a complicated issue! First, at a practical level, there’s no realistic way to do that kind of analysis with the NCES IPEDS dataset, so I have to do the analyses that are possible. Second, even if colleges were separated out, students can sometimes jump between colleges — probably with different levels of difficulty at different schools — so it’s not clear that a college level division would get at the intended denominator. Third, self-selection into colleges upon application, admission, or entrance adds another layer of complication. (At UCR, we award undergraduate degrees in four different “colleges”: Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, Natural and Agricultural Sciences, Engineering, and Business. Only the first awards degrees in philosophy, but students often flip between colleges in their first couple of years.)

@ Howie & LFC -- yes, I generally agree with LFC here. Both seem to be great places for undergrad philosophy, and much more will turn on what a person does with their opportunities. Also relevant is that both are elite schools generally, which appears to have a huge impact on placement into graduate schools, if graduate school is the aim. See here:

Shawn El said...

Eric, I didn't see mentioned anywhere that St. John's College (Annapolis/Santa Fe) would not have appeared in the NCES data, but effectively awards a high number of philosophy degrees. The degree they grant is labelled 'liberal arts' but completing the degree includes a four credit-hour philosophy/literature course every semester all four years. If I am reading your arithmetic correctly, the number of degrees SJC awards (approx. 150-200 annually) would place it near the top of your list.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Shawn, yes, I removed St John's (see fn 2), but if I had included it, it would have been 100% philosophy, since NCES classifies their liberal arts major as philosophy. There are also several seminaries that would be 100% philosophy based on the NCES classification.

Arnold said...

For those of us interested in many kinds of awareness...
...then reporting about experiences of awareness is...

Is a step along the way towards understanding awareness... first understand purpose...

My morning walk, this morning included a man standing in front of his car, with the hood up, holding battery cables..."when older-purpose can be The question of ones life"...I was able to follow through with this awareness of, the objectivity of impulses in living...

Thanks Eric for your reporting...