English Literature has long been a staple of the undergraduate curriculum, but in recent years, the major has experienced a sharp decline in popularity: according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, English Language and Literature was the fastest-declining major from 2013-2018, with a 25.5% decrease in the number of graduates. For those working as admissions counselors, English Literature program managers and directors, or marketers in colleges with an English degree, understanding why so many students and parents are hesitant to undertake the degree and how to address those concerns is now more important than ever.
It’s likely due to the abundance of stereotypes about the major, and the perception that STEM degrees offer more earning potential and career stability. However, these stereotypes are not backed up by statistics: according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, those with an English degree have a current unemployment rate of 6.3%, compared to Biological Science (also 6.3%), Aerospace Engineering (6.6.%) and International Affairs (7.1%). According to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the eight top-employing occupations for workers with an English degree are expected to grow anywhere from 5 to 24 percent over the next seven years, which is more good news for the longevity of the English major’s employability. And when it comes to earnings, although English majors may earn less than their STEM classmates right out of college, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (cited by David Deming in The New York Times), they may catch up after age forty, when they take on management positions that STEM majors may not attain. Moreover, students with Humanities degrees have similar levels of satisfaction with their financial state, according to a 2018 study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences: among workers holding bachelor’s degrees in the natural sciences, 45% said they had enough money to “do everything [they] want to do,” as compared to 42% of respondents in the humanities. Humanities graduates reported job satisfaction at levels comparable to graduates from almost every other field. They’re not getting into deeper debt to do it, either: the same study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences cited above shows that a comparison of debt levels among college graduates shows only negligible differences between humanities and non-humanities graduates across all age cohorts.
In short, there’s plenty of evidence to show that the outcomes of English majors are no more bleak than many other majors, even STEM majors. But in order to overcome these stereotypes and meet enrollment targets, administrators, admissions professionals, and marketers must work overtime to promote the value of an English Literature degree. But how?
Market the flexibility of the English degree as an asset. By featuring successful English Literature alumni on the university’s website and social media channels, you can showcase the wide range of professions that an English Literature degree can lead to, including marketing, law, advertising, communications, editing, public relations, and education, in addition to a variety of writing jobs (including technical writing, medical writing, grant writing, and creative writing). When speaking to alumni for features, make sure you ask questions such as, “What skills from your program do you use in your career today?” or “How did this program help you to reach your career goals?” to ensure you’re getting useful quotes.
Offer experiential learning opportunities. English programs need to learn from STEM colleagues and provide their students with internships, co-ops, or service learning projects, not as an option, but as an integral part of the degree. These opportunities not only enhance the student’s learning experience, but also provide them with valuable networking opportunities that can lead to better career outcomes. Experiential learning programs also help to emphasize the practical aspects of the degree for parents and students worried that the degree won’t lead to a career.
Emphasize the practicality of the degree in the curriculum. Far from being just about analyzing sonnets, English Literature majors gain valuable skills, which administrators can work to underscore in their curriculum. Administrators and faculty members should highlight this by providing courses or seminars in subjects like grant writing, editing, communications, medical writing, and technical writing. Providing a curriculum that balances traditional English Literature courses with practical skills can help to reassure students and parents that students aren’t graduating with only “soft skills.”
Work to make it affordable. When choosing a major, students and parents are, now more than ever, conscious of the cost. Anything that your office can do to help students to reduce those costs can be helpful; while offering more substantial financial aid may not always be possible, other methods include keeping an up-to-date list of outside funding opportunities, reducing tuition for any semesters students are participating in experiential learning opportunities, shortening programs, or offering income share agreements in place of traditional financial aid.
Arm yourself with facts. While the statistics I’ve cited above may be helpful as first steps, understanding your program’s career outcomes has never been more important. Anyone in your program who is communicating with prospective students needs to know the employment rates of your graduates, the top employers of your graduates, how quickly graduates found their first job post-graduation, and the average and median salary of your graduates. If these numbers aren’t where you want them to be, work with faculty members and career development staff in your program to find ways to support recent graduates.
While the decline in popularity of the English Literature major is certainly a cause for concern, there are actionable steps that universities and programs can take to combat this trend. By promoting the value of an English Literature degree and highlighting the transferable skills and diverse career paths that the degree offers, universities can make the major more attractive to students who are seeking a degree that is both relevant and practical in today’s job market.
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