Undergraduate Humanities Coursework: an Exploration of its Effects on Key Postgraduate Outcomes

September, 2013

Executive Summary:

This report explores what current data sources can reveal about who takes college-level humanities courses and the value of these courses to students who ultimately pursue degrees in fields other than the humanities. The report is divided into two parts. The first discusses the suitability of current data for the in-depth examination of what different types of collegiate coursework contribute to graduates’ efficacy in civic and economic life; the second describes an analysis of the existing dataset found to be most conducive to such an investigation, the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) Baccalaureate and Beyond 1993–2003 (B&B).

With regard to who takes humanities coursework, the major conclusion of this study is that the selection of a college major has a substantial effect on the number of humanities credits a student will take. Engineering majors take significantly fewer humanities credits than other students, while majoring in the social and behavioral sciences or education significantly increases the number of humanities credits non- humanities majors take. For many universities, application is to a particular unit within the university, such as the College of Engineering, Business, or Education. Thus the amount of humanities coursetaking is largely determined by the initial choice of academic unit. While there may be some change in major during the college years, the structure of many universities makes it less likely that there will be such shifts in majors, with the result that the number of humanities courses taken will be constrained by the requirements of the major and the difficulty of transferring among academic units.

Gender and developed ability, as measured by SAT scores, both verbal and quantitative, also influence humanities coursetaking but indirectly through their effect on the choice of major, although verbal ability continues to have a direct effect, but of a somewhat diminished size. Values are also important. Graduates with a more materialistic orientation took fewer humanities courses on average, even after controlling for other key variables. Unfortunately, from the B&B data we cannot tell the direction of cause and effect, that is, whether taking humanities courses produced a less materialistic outlook in students or whether less materialistic students are drawn to humanities study.

We do not have data on many of the outcomes that have been suggested as the strength of the humanities. There are little or no data on measures of subjective well-being, personal efficacy, or cultural participation, nor on communication, analytic, or interpersonal skills. It is clear from other data that humanities majors tend to earn less than those who major in most other subjects. For non-humanities majors, however, we found no significant effect, positive or negative, of the amount of humanities courses taken on earnings 10 years later. The results do support the belief that humanities coursetaking increases the probability of further education, but are equivocal with regard to civic participation.

A key insight to emerge from our study is the value of the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) consulting with NCES in advance of subsequent postsecondary education studies to:

  • arrive at a course coding scheme that is more closely aligned with the conceptualization of the humanities in which the NEH’s organic legislation is rooted;
  • question religion and religious studies majors more carefully as to whether their degrees were in the non-sectarian study of the content, history, and impact of religious belief and thus appropriate to count as humanities degrees under the NEH conceptualization of the field;
  • in view of the high degree of student movement among postsecondary educations, encourage the gathering of documentation from all institutions attended to permit the calculation of accurate counts of the number credits taken in different fields for transfer students; and
  • develop a fuller range of outcome variables that can supply a more nuanced understanding of how postsecondary education, in the humanities and other areas, enhances individual student outcomes, as well as the nation’s economic and civic vitality.

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