The Humanities in Church-Related Higher Ed: A Broader View

Because I work for a member institution of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) and study evangelical models of higher education, I occasionally need to be reminded that the CCCU represents only a fraction of the colleges and universities related to Christian churches. But after consecutive weekends in which I attended the seminary graduation of my brother-in-law (an alum of Wartburg College) and then visited my wife’s alma mater (Luther College), I started to wonder if institutions connected to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) were experiencing the same decline in humanities majors that I’d seen in their evangelical counterparts.

Back to the U.S. Department of Education’s IPEDS database I went, to look up English, history, and philosophy/religious studies degrees granted by the ELCA’s 26 colleges and universities from 2004 to 2014. While I was there, I thought I’d look at another church-related cluster that I’ve sometimes studied: the 28 members of the Association of Jesuit Colleges & Universities (AJCU).

Cudahy Science Hall, Loyola University of Chicago
Cudahy Science Hall, Loyola University of Chicago – Creative Commons (Amerique)

If you want to dive into this data yourself, I’ve created a spreadsheet with the raw data and various calculations for all three consortia. I did make one tweak in how I calculated percentages, which you can click down and read if you’re so interested:

Percent of 2004 graduates with a major in…

Percent of 2014 graduates with a major in…



Philosophy & Religion



Philosophy & Religion

Change in humanities share

























(*As I noted in the original post… I think this number is likely much lower, since it’s evident that some CCCU members are reporting pre-ministry programs in the IPEDS “Philosophy & Religious Studies” category.)

In response to my original CCCU post, some pointed out that focusing on percentages could be misleading, since the humanities might have remained stable or even ticked upwards while overall numbers of degrees grew (in part because of growth in professional adult undergraduate programs). So here are the absolute numbers, rather than percentages, of the three humanities majors by comparison with total bachelor’s degrees.

Bachelor’s Degrees (2004)

Graduates with Humanities Major (2004)

Bachelor’s Degrees (2014)

Graduates with Humanities Major (2014)
















So yes, degree completions increased from 2004 to 2014 in all three consortia, and especially in the CCCU (which also several new members over this period). But all three also saw both absolute and relative decline in the humanities.

Le Moyne College sign
Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY had the largest drop-off of any Jesuit institution: 8.4% – Wikimedia

And as with the CCCU, it’s particularly striking to see that the decline has generally been steepest where the academic reputation is highest. For example, two of the Jesuit institutions with the largest drops in humanities share are Boston College (-6.1%) and Holy Cross (-5.9%), which by any measure are elite institutions. (For example: #30 National University and #32 National Liberal Arts College, respectively, according to U.S. News.) Likewise, the two ELCA colleges with the sharpest declines in humanities were St. Olaf (-11.0%) and Augustana-Illinois (-10.2%), both ranking on the U.S. News national liberal arts college list. Muhlenberg College, whose president recently celebrated the enduring value of elite liberal arts colleges like his employer, has had a four point decline.

Now, about one in six St. Olaf grads and one in eight Augustana and Muhlenberg grads still finish at least one humanities major (which would place in the top 10% of the CCCU), and I don’t think anyone doubts that they remain “liberal arts colleges.” But last fall and winter two other ELCA schools caused students, alumni, and faculty to question their commitment to the liberal arts after they cut humanities programs and faculty: Wartburg (-7.6%) and Concordia-Moorhead (-7.6%).

Old Main at St. Olaf College
Old Main, St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN – Wikimedia

So what to make of all this?

Given that the humanities seem to be in decline at virtually every kind of institution (evangelical Christian or non-evangelical Christian, religious or non-religious, private or public), we should start with the argument that we’re going through a familiar cycle: the humanities have experienced national decline before (after World War II, during the 1980s) and recovered (in the 1960s and, to a much lesser extent, the 1990s). If students are steering clear of programs like English, history, and philosophy because the Great Recession has made them risk-averse pragmatists, then we should expect that economic recovery will eventually cause the decline to level off, or even reverse. (Particularly as the job market finds itself oversaturated with, say, business and organizational communication majors and employers start looking for a competitive advantage by shifting their hiring preferences.)

Of course, it might be that the humanities, if not higher ed more generally, have gone through a fundamental disruption and will never recover anything approaching their former status, even at private colleges ostensibly committed to the liberal arts. (Or perhaps they will revive in a new form: e.g., as multi- or interdisciplinary digital humanities programs.)

But setting those overarching questions to the side… What do we make of the particular trends in these three church-related consortia? My initial study of CCCU institutions left me wondering what a decline in the humanities told us about evangelicalism. How do my hypotheses hold up, now that I’ve compared the CCCU schools to some of their Lutheran and Roman Catholic peers?

If it’s true that Christian college students are deciding against humanities majors because they come to our campuses averse to risk and prioritizing economic security, then the evangelical church is doing a terrible job of forming its young people.

First, if there is a “crisis of the humanities” at church-related institutions of higher learning, it might actually seem to be more acute at ELCA (-3.1% average decline) and Jesuit (-2.7%) institutions than at their CCCU (-2.3%) counterparts. So I might revise one of my initial arguments: if Christian students at church-related colleges generally are making decisions about what they study based more on economic uncertainty than a sense of vocation, then perhaps it’s not just evangelical churches that have been failing them.

Could it be that Christian college students are deciding against humanities majors because they come from churches that leave them suspicious of such studies?

But what really stands out is that the humanities are simply weaker at CCCU members than at other church-related institutions. The ELCA and AJCU declines are steeper because they started from higher positions. So even after the recent crisis, about one in ten undergraduates at Jesuit and ELCA schools are still finishing with a major in English, history, or philosophy/religious studies — that’s nearly double the CCCU average (5.8%), and two points higher than the CCCU peak (8.0%, in 2006). And again, the CCCU number is almost certainly inflated by reporting in the “philosophy & religious studies” category. So I still can’t shake my concern that suspicion of the humanities are more deeply embedded in American evangelicalism than I wanted to believe…

Methodological Tweak: In my earlier post on humanities in the CCCU, I should have been more clear that I was trying to take into account students who had graduated with more than one major. IPEDS provides “first” and “second” majors, both as a total of bachelor’s degrees and for each discipline. Since I added together the first/second numbers in counting the English, history, and philosophy categories, I did the same for the overall totals.

On further reflection, I’m not sure that’s the best way to represent the already-tricky idea of “share.” It could be argued that a better approach would be to give the humanities share of each school’s IPEDS number for “First Major – Grand Total – Bachelor’s degree” alone, since that would give the actual percentages of graduates with at least one major in a humanities field. (Of course, we’d be double-counting students with, say, history/philosophy double-majors, but I don’t know a way around that problem — not that it’s a huge group.)

Now, for the CCCU, this doesn’t really change the results very much. Rather than the overall share of humanities declining from 7.5% (2004) to 5.5% (2014), it drops from 7.9% to 5.8%. That’s because, on average, only 5-7% of CCCU graduates had more than one major.

By contrast, 15-17% of ELCA and 11-14% of AJCU graduates had multiple majors. In and of itself, that’s probably noteworthy; I suspect that it reflects the growth at CCCU schools of professional programs requiring 60-90 credits, which are hard to pair with traditionally smaller programs like history and philosophy.

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