Recruiting for the Humanities

An article this week in the Boston Globe cited the most recent data on how badly the humanities are hurting. With philanthropic monies flowing to the sciences, and sharp declines in the number of students declaring majors in the humanities (8% of US undergraduates in 2007, down from 17% in 1996, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences) as students increasingly look for disciplines linked to specific career outcomes, there is a growing sense in higher education that the future of studies in the humanities -- though the humanities are nominally core to a liberal arts curriculum -- is threatened.

"Within the general college-bound public, the understanding of the liberal arts is fuzzy at best and distorted at worst. Despite our best intentions, noblest desires, and most sincere efforts, the higher education community has been unable to educate the public about what the liberal arts represents."
W. Kent Barnds, Augustana College

Without underplaying the importance of enrolling and graduating more students in STEM fields, many university presidents have recently begun promoting the humanities in their speeches on campus and abroad, and some -- at institutions such as Cornell, Dartmouth, and Harvard -- are pledging to boost their efforts to fundraise for their literature and arts disciplines. There is still a critical question to address -- how can institutions recruit more students to the humanities, which traditionally offer "softer" career outcomes?

W. Kent Barnds, vice president of enrollment, communication, and planning at Augustana College, offers these strategies for institutions that have prioritized recruiting more students to their humanities disciplines.

Differentiating Your Humanities Programs in Ways That Attract Students

Barnds offers this anecdote to demonstrate why competing for students who would major in the humanities is especially difficult for colleges that are not in the top rankings and who can't count on prestige and reputation alone to make their case: "Several years ago, I attended a conference during which admissions people were offered two minutes to describe their institution. At the time, I was working for a small college in Pennsylvania. I began my presentation describing my employer as 'a small, liberal arts college in Pennsylvania.' I then realized that I had just described 60 of my competitors! It was critical for me to find some way to distinguish the college for which I worked from the other 60, small liberal arts colleges in Pennsylvania."

"Traditional programs in the humanities need to do more to develop distinguishing features and shape those features into meaningful benefits to students, in order to compete at the department level. We need to identify why studying in the humanities here is different or better than studying elsewhere."
W. Kent Barnds, Augustana College

The challenge for each liberal arts college is to identify what Barnds calls the "liberal arts+  advantage."

Barnds offers these ideas for where to start developing that competitive advantage:

  • Develop a distinctive element within all of your humanities programs (for example, require a semester abroad as a major requirement in order to fulfill a degree in the humanities)
  • Promote and emphasize cross-disciplinary teaching across your departments in the humanities
  • Develop team-taught courses for all humanities majors that provide a basic cross-disciplinary overview and an introduction to the humanities and humanistic approaches
  • Offer more curriculum flexibility (fewer required courses within specific majors); within reason, give students greater ability to explore courses across several areas of the humanities
  • Create a general humanities major that allows a student to design their own program within the humanities in consultation with faculty mentors; within defined parameters, empower students who are attracted to the humanities to shape an interdisciplinary major
  • Guarantee students who major in the humanities that they can finish in four years
  • Create partnerships with professional programs to make it easier, attractive, and meaningful for students to earn a minor in a humanities discipline

That last suggestion will require making an effective case for how a minor in a humanities discipline will inform and enrich the professional program the student is studying. Define what business students can learn from Shakespeare; enlist faculty and department chairs to identify, specifically, how the integration of humanities courses will help students achieve the learning outcomes of a professional program.

"Another approach is to strengthen the advising model in the humanities so that it is less course-selection-oriented (which many professional programs must be) and more focused on learning experiences and outcomes. Offering a different, more student- and experience-centered advising model has the possibility of making the humanities stand out from professional programs in a positive way."
W. Kent Barnds, Augustana College

Strategies for Recruiting

Once you have reviewed your humanities majors to ensure that they are offered and differentiated in attractive ways, and once you have identified your "liberal arts+ advantage," here are several ways to promote that advantage when recruiting students:

  • Designate one member of the admissions staff as a humanities recruiter; "approach this like any other under-represented population," Barnds advises, "assign staff and resources to it"
  • Approach undergraduate student recruitment for the humanities in a model similar to the graduate school model,  relying more on faculty mentors to invite and interest students
  • Develop a faculty champion who is willing to represent all of the humanities disciplines and who can make the case for the humanities to prospective students -- in this way, replicate or adapt the recruiting model often seen in business schools

Barnds adds, "Ensure that there are incentives, rewards, or recognition in the promotion and tenure process for faculty participation in recruitment." For example, Barnds suggests that a department could consider providing a professor with a course release in order to focus on recruitment efforts (phone calls, emails, presentations) that will then count toward that professor's service during faculty evaluation. A second strategy is to provide a stipend to faculty who are well-suited to aiding in recruitment.

Finally, to answer questions from prospective students and parents like "What can you do with an English major?," look for data on what careers your humanities alumni have chosen. Where are your history majors and your philosophy majors? Find case studies of majors who have found fulfilling career paths. Without diluting or neglecting the intellectual and social benefits of study in the humanities, engage departmental chairs in earnest discussions of what skills developed through studies in the humanities (critical thinking, analysis and synthesis, writing, certain types of research and problem-solving) translate into skills marketable in a job market. Applicants and their parents will ask, so you will need to have a good answer for them.