"Mrs. Duffee Seated on a Striped Sofa, Reading Her Kindle, After Mary Cassatt" by Mike Licht (image via Flickr)

Arts and humanities majors are routinely derided for their supposed uselessness and irrelevance. President Barack Obama even made a lukewarm jab at art history degrees in a 2014 speech promoting technical schools and trade careers (which he later apologized for). And truth be told, the number of arts and humanities degrees being awarded continues to decline year by year, with the Great Recession of 2008 and extortionate tuition costs cited as major contributing factors to the diminishing appeal.

But the tides may be changing, at least at the University of California’s Berkeley Campus (UC Berkeley), which reported a sharp increase in students enrolling in arts and humanities majors in the last decade.

According to campus statistics, the number of first-year enrollments declaring majors in the Division of Arts and Humanities is up a whopping 121% over the 2021–2022 academic year. The division has also seen a 43.2% increase in first-year applicants compared to five years ago, and around a 73% increase compared to ten years ago.

Sara Guyer, the dean of UC Berkeley’s Division of Art and Humanities, says the increase could be due to the global and local impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So many of us, in our own ways, found ourselves in a series of unprecedented situations without a compass or guide,” Guyer told Berkeley News. “It is not at all surprising that students are turning to the arts and humanities as a way to make sense of our current moment. The imaginative, ethical, creative and analytical contributions and historical observations of humanities research and artistic production provide a valuable way to understand the complexities brought on by contemporary challenges.”

It’s unclear whether this upward shift is unique to UC Berkeley or an indication of a national trend. Arizona State University (ASU) published a news report in 2021 celebrating a 17% increase in arts and humanities majors between 2017 and 2019, and over 4,000 undergraduate students majored in the two sectors as of spring semester 2021. Community colleges across the nation are seeing a steadily rising demand in two-year humanities programs as well, with a record-breaking 400,000+ related associate’s degrees awarded in 2018.

Unfortunately, the crickets are chirping at colleges and universities that were forced to freeze enrollments in their arts and humanities departments or close up shop entirely. In 2021, Long Island University’s CW Post campus halted admissions to their Music Education major, citing both budget cuts and lack of enrollment. And at the end of the 2019 academic year, the University of New Haven discontinued its degree program with the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Old Lyme, Connecticut, due to insufficient enrollment numbers, leaving the Academy with only a two-year foundational course and continuing education programs. Becker College, a small liberal arts school in Worcester, Massachusetts, closed its doors in 2021 after 237 years of academic service because the pandemic had exacerbated its already strained financial situation.

With so much funding being funneled into university STEM programs, it’s inevitable that the arts and humanities sectors were left out to dry. Those who persevere with their “useless” majors should find relief in the fact that a humanities degree could pay off down the road. And if that’s not enough to assuage one’s employment anxieties, there’s always the option of a job in tech.

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Rhea Nayyar

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...

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