Introducing Admitted Students to the Humanities

On March 11th, 233 humanities advocates gathered for our Annual Meeting at The LINE DC. It was inspiring to see so many passionate humanists joining together to promote the value of the humanities on campuses, in communities, and on Capitol Hill. We spent the morning digging into efforts to attract more undergraduate students to the humanities, hearing from six movers and shakers who shared innovative strategies they’ve used on their campuses.

The need to put our heads together to illuminate best practices for persuading undergraduates to study the humanities has never been clearer. Since the Great Recession, there’s been a widespread decline in the number of degrees awarded in the humanities. The challenges are many, but the situation is far from hopeless. Our six presenters highlighted opportunities to reverse this troubling trend—clarifying the value of humanities education, creating curricula geared toward viable career pathways, fostering community through cohort programs, and partnering with career services and local employers to address job concerns—through lightning round presentations. Participants then joined breakout sessions, where they considered how they might adapt these successful strategies and brainstormed other approaches.    

For example, associate dean and literary scholar Barbara Will shared how Dartmouth College successfully reversed a sharp decline in humanities majors by proactively engaging prospective and admitted students before they arrive on campus. Partnering with the admissions office proved crucial. Will and her colleagues worked with admissions to create and promote an Arts and Humanities Day for prospective students featuring accessible and engrossing presentations from leading faculty followed by a tour of arts and humanities spaces on campus; 100 percent of participants applied. And they worked closely with the office’s new director to help the admissions team understand the nature of humanities research and how to spot promising humanities students among applicants. They also partnered with the president and communications office to produce and distribute a high-quality brochure advertising a competitive humanities core sequence to all admitted students.

At Will’s breakout session, the room was abuzz. Ten groups discussed how these strategies might work on their campuses and brainstormed alternative strategies for reaching prospective, admitted, and newly matriculated students. Many emphasized the importance of addressing career prospects concerns as early as possible. Some proposed targeting high school students and their parents and counselors through outreach events at key schools and summer humanities camps. Others discussed working with alumni, advancement, and career services offices to highlight humanities success stories and career opportunities. One group focused on peer persuasion strategies, considering ways to empower passionate humanities students as ambassadors, including video testimonials and student-driven social media and “drip” campaigns. Others strategized how to help prospective students envision their path through the humanities, from steering campus visits toward small seminars to mapping out double majors and pre-professional pathways clearly.

While the lightning round presentations highlighted specific successes, the breakout sessions demonstrated an abundance of energy, enthusiasm, and ideas for reversing the decline more broadly. There remains much work to be done. But it was enormously encouraging to see this diverse group of humanists come together to trade ideas for sharing the learning they love with the next generation. We will be expanding these efforts to distribute successful student recruitment strategies throughout the higher education community in the months ahead. Stay tuned!