Among the 164 high school valedictorians on Long Island this spring, only one, a Jericho High School student, listed English as her intended college major.
Only a handful of others were intending to major in fields such as history, arts, French literature or classics. The rest were choosing majors mostly in health-care-related specialties, business and in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.
The students' choices reflect national trends of declining enrollment in humanities majors and a rise in those more directly connected to the workplace. It's happened at the same time that the cost of a college education has steadily risen, and jobs in STEM and business fields, with enticing starting salaries, have expanded.
“I think what happened is the parents and the students started thinking about school loans because schools became very expensive,” SUNY Old Westbury interim provost Dorothy Escribano said. “People would have loved to get a humanities degree but had to think about, 'How am I going to repay my student loans?' or, 'What will be my first job?' ”
WHAT TO KNOW
- Enrollment in humanities majors continues to trend downward as college costs trend upward. Humanities degrees hit a low point in 2021, with a 9.3% share of all degrees conferred.
- Starting salaries are the highest in finance and STEM fields.
- Graduates with humanities majors often go on to careers in professions such as law, education, not-for-profits, business, communications and government service.
In 2021, the humanities accounted for 9.3% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded — the smallest share since a more comprehensive accounting became possible in 1987, said Robert Townsend, co-director of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences' Humanities Indicators project. Enrollment in the humanities dropped 17% over the past decade, according to the project, with steeper declines in traditional humanities such as English, languages and history.
Over the same period, average tuition at higher education institutions rose sharply, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nationally in 2020-21, annual tuition and fees alone amounted to $37,600 at private, nonprofit colleges and universities, 19% higher than a decade before, and an average of $9,500 at public four-year institutions, an increase of 10% from a decade earlier.
“More and more students and their parents have become well-informed consumers, and the price of postsecondary education has skyrocketed,” said Laurie Lynn, director of counseling at Plainview-Old Bethpage High School. “So I think there is a feeling, 'We want to make sure we’re well-prepared for earning a living where we’ll be able to support ourselves in the future.’”
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey of projected starting annual salaries for the Class of 2023, engineers topped the list at $74,405, with computer scientists behind them at $72,843. Humanities majors ranked lowest, with projected starting salaries of $50,681.
The top five in-demand majors among employers were finance, computer science, accounting, business management, and information sciences and systems, according to the same survey.
Patrick Kiley-Rendon, executive director for Technology & Innovation in the West Islip school district, said students taking college tours realize that STEM labs, workshops for tech and digital projects, and "even business departments seem to be the jewels in the crown lately.”
Katie Tian, that lone Long Island valedictorian who intends to major in English, said she is keeping her options open.
She, too, felt pressure to go into STEM or business, she said, but decided to pursue her passions for creative writing and journalism. But when she attends Harvard in the fall, she wants to explore other possibilities, including perhaps a double major with English and economics.
“I want to do what I’m passionate about but also look at the practical and financial aspect of things,” she said.
STEM'S emergence on LI
The rise in STEM popularity is evident on Long Island's college campuses and in the Island's K-12 school districts.
At Adelphi University in Garden City, the percentage of students enrolled in STEM majors — including biochemistry, computer science, environmental science, mathematics, physics and statistics — increased by 41% from fall 2012 to fall 2022.
Meanwhile, those in non-STEM majors fell by 6% over the same period, said Kristen Capezza, Adelphi vice president of enrollment management and communications. She noted that neuroscience and health sciences programs — some of which overlap with STEM — expanded, based on demand.
Hofstra University soon will open a $75 million Center for Science and Innovation. LIU, in February, cut the ribbon on its new College of Veterinary Medicine Learning Center and was just approved to offer a new bachelor's of engineering degree in digital engineering.
Lynn, at Plainview-Old Bethpage High School, said graduating students’ choices of majors were not only pragmatic but based on interests cultivated in high school. This year’s valedictorian at that school plans to major in statistics and data science at Cornell University.
“We have dynamic business and engineering programs here,” she said. “It’s pragmatic, but also there is excitement. The research programs on Long Island have provided such awesome opportunities for hands-on work that excite the students, and they look to continue that in their postsecondary life.”
Students have grown up seeing the business, technology and entrepreneurial sectors taking center stage and driving innovation and discoveries, said Joshua Ochalek, 18, another Jericho High School valedictorian (the school had 15 of them).
Ochalek, who will study computer science at Cornell, said he felt that STEM subjects were emphasized at school, with research competitions, earlier acceleration in course work for students seen as talented in STEM, and competitive peer pressure.
“I’m right there with everyone else,” Ochalek said of his major. “I’m definitely influenced by everything going on around me. Computer science is the hottest major right now, and starting salaries are high."
Starting in 2024, all school districts statewide must implement state standards in computer science and digital fluency, introducing the subjects in kindergarten with mastery by graduation, Kiley-Rendon said.
“I would say because computers and computer science touch every career now, even looking at the influence of AI [artificial intelligence] that is making its way into everything everyone does, more and more workplaces are putting a value on that regardless of what career field,” he said.
In the Mineola school district, all students in ninth grade are required to take Advanced Placement computer science principles. In West Islip, a STEM Academy program helps its members in ninth through 12th grades weave STEM and technology courses into their curriculum and introduces them to jobs and internships with local manufacturing and digital design firms.
In the Roosevelt district, where the valedictorian will major in business management and the salutatorian in mechanical engineering, college and career are entwined from early on, administrators said. Students are engaged in elementary and middle school enrichment courses in summer academies, and after-school programming, where they are exposed to coding, engineering design challenges, and robotics, Superintendent Deborah Wortham said.
“Courses are embedded in the cycle of study at the middle school level, and our students are to continue at the high school level in the coming year," she said.
Uptick in humanities at some schools
All is not lost for humanities, however. Upticks have been noted at some universities, including University of California at Berkeley, and at Arizona State University.
On Long Island, St. Joseph’s University in Patchogue has seen a slight increase in students declaring humanities majors since 2015 “due to students interested in becoming teachers of those subjects, English, History and Spanish,” said Jessica McAleer, a spokesperson. “Adolescent-education majors alone in those subjects have collectively increased by 59% over this time period.”
At both Nassau and Suffolk county community colleges, where the focus is increasingly on investment in workforce training, about half of the student body is enrolled in liberal arts, and at Farmingdale State College, enrollment in the humanities rose from 11.2% to 12% of total enrollment from 2012 to 2022.
At SUNY Old Westbury, students who declared a liberal arts major rose from 249 in fall 2012 to 524 in fall 2022. That's attributed to students who would later choose other majors, as well as the "activation of a B.A. in Liberal Arts program and a new Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies program," said spokesperson Michael Kinane. Total enrollment last fall was 4,268.
Capezza, at Adelphi, said that while the percentage of students majoring in humanities may have declined there, those subject areas were still an important part of the university’s core curriculum and often were included in interdisciplinary majors and in pre-professional programs. On Adelphi websites, career paths are shown for every major, including the humanities.
Some of the strict lines between STEM and humanities are beginning to blur, Kiley-Rendon said. An organization of tech teachers and administrators of which he's a member bestowed a $2,000 scholarship on Riya Mittle, who just graduated from East Williston’s The Wheatley School. She plans a career in law, specializing in cybersecurity.
“I enrolled in computer science and joined the mock trial club, the pre-law club,” she said. “I really feel that both piqued my interest. So when people started asking me what I wanted to do in college, two polar opposites came to my mind and I looked for ways to combine them.”
Recently, the state proposed dropping social studies from the list of required Regents tests, causing an outcry by those concerned that it would lose importance in the curriculum at a time when critical reasoning, civic engagement and historical context for current events are as important as ever.
Mineola schools Superintendent Michael Nagler, who noted that his STEM-oriented son had many more scholarship opportunities than his daughter, who did not take the science competition route in high school, nonetheless said that while the focus is on STEM now, “There is an ebb and flow to it.”
“We need teachers,” he said. “I’m hoping it leans more toward humanities in the future. Maybe the bigger question is, How do we instill the virtues of humanities in a tech-driven society? … because I’m sure there are jobs we haven’t thought of that combine both.”