Two-Year Colleges Can Boost Liberal Arts Education

By Aja Storm Kennedy

Liberal studies are often dismissed as frivolous and impractical by those outside of academia, or outside of the discipline, and many liberal arts schools and programs confront growing pressures to prove their significance and practicality or risk budget cuts. However, President Barack Obama’s free community college plan, announced last month, might be an unexpected source of support for embattled liberal arts programs. 

According to statistics from Humanities Indicators, a project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in the core humanities (English language and literature, history, foreign language and literature, philosophy, and the classics) fell 2.4% from 2012 to 2013, and only 6.5% of all bachelor’s degrees conferred were in core humanities disciplines—a historic low. Master’s degrees awarded in the core humanities fell 3% from 2012 to 2013 while doctoral degrees experienced no significant change. However, the number of associate’s degrees conferred in core humanities classes did not decline; in fact, from 2010 to 2013, there was an estimated average increase of 10.7%. Furthermore, in 2013, degrees in the core humanities constituted 38.9% of all conferred associate’s degrees, closing in on the percentage of awarded professional degrees which stands at 49.2. 

As Martha J. Kanter outlines in her article “Community College Students and the Humanities,” this increase demonstrates the key role community colleges play in advancing the humanities’ position in higher education. Community colleges serve as a gateway into the world of liberal arts for prospective transfer students because humanities courses typically satisfy the majority of general education requirements; students who are not already invested in a professional program tend to continue their focus in liberal studies when they transfer to a four-year college or university. 

So if associate’s degrees in liberal studies are on the rise, why are bachelor’s degrees declining? The simplest answer is that upon completion of their associate’s degrees, many community college students never actually transfer to four-year institutions. 

According to statistics listed on Community College Research Center’s website, only 25% of students who enter community colleges transfer to four-year institutions within five years. Rapidly increasing tuition costs play a major part in this. Many community college students come from low-income families and cannot afford to continue their education at four-year institutions. However, if Obama’s plan is approved—as Mary Turck explains in an article about the advances in equal opportunity the President’s plan might provide—free community college “would make a bachelor’s degree more affordable, by enabling students to get two years of college without piling up debt.” Prospective transfers could bypass college expenses for their first two years of school and focus on saving money for a four-year institution. 

According to The Christian Science Monitor, nearly nine million community college students could save an average of $3,800 in tuition and loans per year if the President’s plan is approved. The idea of entering a four-year institution debt free makes transferring more appealing to a student who only needs to pay for two more years of study before earning their bachelor’s degree; the number of community college students transferring to four-year schools is certain to increase. 

It is in this increase that the liberal arts finds new promise. Based on Humanities Indicators’ statistics that 38.9% of associate’s degrees conferred are in the humanities, if more community college students pursue bachelor’s degrees, then the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in the liberal arts will increase. Whether the resulting increase will be slight or dramatic is uncertain, but even an increase as low as 6% would nearly double the current percentage of 6.5. 

With a higher number of liberal arts majors, liberal arts programs at four-year institutions will enjoy more security and stability. And, even in the unlikely event that increased transfer rates do not lead to a rise in bachelor’s degrees conferred in the liberal arts, it is certain that free community college will lead to a surge in community college students and a continued growth in the number of conferred associate’s degrees. 

So whether the President’s plan helps reverse the trend of shrinking humanities or simply continues to increase the number of associate’s degrees in liberal studies, it is safe to say free community college could give liberal arts programs the help they need to keep the discipline growing and continue to provide a steady stream of well-educated potential hires in a variety of fields.

Aja Storm Kennedy is a junior at Howard University majoring in English and minoring in sociology. Howard University is home to the Gamma of The District of Columbia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.