Expanding interest in the humanities

“Jazz and the Music of the African Diaspora” is a popular class at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) this summer. Same with “The Politics of Food.”

The courses are part of a residential five-week summer academy for community college transfer students who are committed to pursuing humanities majors at UCSD. Offered at no cost to students, the academy is one piece of a larger collaboration between the public research university and the San Diego Community College District. The goal is for the 33 academy students to graduate in a couple of years with bachelor’s degrees in arts and humanities fields.

Similar efforts are taking place across the country, as university leaders are tapping into robust interest among community college students in humanities studies, even as the push for technical degrees accelerates and some politicians and others question the value of liberal arts majors.

“We fight the culture that says the humanities aren’t important,” said Andrew Rusnak, an English professor at the Community College of Baltimore County and executive director of the Community College Humanities Association.

An increase in degrees

Recent research suggests that community college students as a group haven’t bought into that narrative. The number of associate degrees awarded in humanities and liberal arts fields nationwide nearly doubled — from 218,000 to 410,000 — between 2000 and 2015, according to findings released in June by the Community College Research Center.

Humanities and liberal arts accounted for 41 percent of associate degrees awarded in 2015. That’s a 3 percent increase since 2000, and it helped to offset a decline in the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded in those fields over the 15-year period — from 17 percent to 13 percent.

“Community college transfer students are an important group of humanities and liberal arts students,” the report’s authors wrote. “It is critical to determine if these students are prepared for humanities and liberal arts coursework at four-year colleges.”

Community ties

To that end, several collaborations among community colleges and four-year institutions are underway nationwide. Some of the most vigorous are benefitting from a funding initiative by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

One Mellon partnership exists in Cleveland, where Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) has teamed up with Case Western Reserve University to form the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative. The collaborative seeks to identify strong humanities students at the community college level and support them as they acquire their associate degrees and adjust to the very different landscape at Case Western Reserve, a selective, private research university. It focuses on mentoring, strengthening faculty interactions and supporting humanities in the Cleveland region.

“It’s actually not all that hard to convince students to go into the humanities,” said Michael Schoop, a Tri-C vice president who is a point person for the collaborative.

Community college students tend to be deeply invested in their communities and life stories, Schoop said. “The humanities disciplines lend themselves to community and identity and storytelling,” he said.

Tri-C graduates, who often are students of color and the first in their families to enroll in college, bring a valuable perspective to Case Western Reserve, said Kurt Koenigsberger, associate dean of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative (CHC).

“Our faculty loves our CHC students,” he said. “Most of them have lived most of their lives in Cleveland. They know and understand the community.”

A broader perspective

Another Mellon partnership, the New Hampshire Humanities Collaborative, works to align credits and expectations for humanities studies at the state’s seven community colleges and the University of New Hampshire.

The collaborative also promotes “grand issues,” said Brian Bicknell, vice president of academic affairs at Manchester Community College. His school made immigration and refugee resettlement a focus of humanities learning, and capped off its project with a community event called “Home to Home: Stories of Immigration.”

Bicknell credits the collaborative with raising awareness of humanities from “a shoulder shrug” to “seeing them as something of value.”

Related articles: “Integrating humanities education” and “Humanities education quantified”

But challenges prevail. New Hampshire’s funding for higher education ranks among the bottom of the 50 states, and community colleges are must rely heavily on adjunct faculty to teach humanities classes.

“Nationally and regionally, there’s support for technical programs and sort of an eye roll for the humanities,” Bicknell said.

Overcoming challenges

Rusnak said one of the goals of the Community College Humanities Association is to embed humanities learning into technical majors. “We feel there’s no engineer out there worth their salt unless they have a foundation in humanities,” he said.

Another goal is to push back against the perception that a humanities degree is a ticket to a lifetime of job search frustration and low pay.

Recent research by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences shows that humanities graduates do earn slightly less than college graduates overall — median annual earnings totaled $52,000 in 2015, compared with $60,000 for graduates of all fields. But the pay gap narrows as graduates remain in the workforce, and the report showed that humanities graduates report a level of job satisfaction comparable with STEM majors.

Anxieties regarding employment and salaries partly explain why the share of students seeking humanities degrees drops off after community college, said Stephanie Bulger, a vice chancellor at the San Diego Community College District (SDCCD). That’s especially the case for first-generation students and students of color.

In a collaboration with the University of California San Diego called PATH (Preparing Accomplished Transfers to the Humanities), SDCCD works to erase those doubts. Humanities students receive extensive faculty and peer mentoring, enrichment opportunities, access to a closed on-line community and the chance to attend the summer academy. And they hear from professionals who are thriving in humanities fields.

“Students are really attracted to the humanities because they can discover themselves and find their niche,” Bulger said. “When they discover they can use what they’ve learned to go into a profession, that is transformative.”

Employer support

Employers are emerging as some of the strongest allies for humanities studies.

“You see a lot of corporations becoming more committed to their social reputations. They’re looking to tap into humanities majors,” said Krystal Huff, program manager of PATH.

As a first-generation student of color, Huff said she faced a lot of questions when she majored in women’s studies and African-American studies as an undergraduate. But those courses created a foundation for her to obtain gratifying work and eventually obtain her doctorate in education leadership.

“What’s so amazing about the arts and humanities is the critical thinking and skills that come with taking these classes,” Huff said. “Employers love that. We know students need to be well-rounded now if they want to find work right after school.”

About the Author

Barbara Shelly
is a higher education writer in Kansas City, Missouri.