Discounted tuition by major devalues the humanities (letter)

In response to Fidel Tavárez’s November 17 opinion piece, “Humanities Majors Should Pay Lower Tuition” and in support of Karen Spierling’s September 13 Letter to the Editor, “ ’Stop With the Academic Clickbaiting’ on the Humanities”: The argument for discounting humanities tuition is a slippery slope that is built on unchallenged and false assumptions. Before we start down this slippery slope, let’s consider what we can do to address the assumptions and change the crisis narrative surrounding the humanities.

To start, though, I agree that tuition structures need an overhaul and, ideally, would be covered by federal or state funding. Rising student loan debt and tuition need to be addressed. Perhaps new models of funding need to be innovated, ones that are unique to higher education, align with a university’s mission and values, and do not draw on business models that were not built for academic structures. Discounting tuition for the humanities reinforces already unsustainable and inequitable practices.

The main reasons Tavárez cites for discounting humanities tuition are lower market value of the humanities, fewer job prospects for humanists, and lower research expenditure for humanities scholarship. These assumptions are false and run counter to my experience as a humanities researcher and teacher. As a rhetoric and technical communication professor, I prepare students from across the disciplines how to communicate in the non-academic workplace and teach them how their skills transfer outside the university.

I also apply my humanities training and research in my work with health care agencies, where I have built in-person and asynchronous training platforms to improve clinicians’ written communication skills. My current research project seeks to better understand how we can prepare humanists for public-facing work like this. To date, my research assistant and I have interviewed 41 humanities stakeholders, both inside and outside of the academy, to learn how graduate education can better prepare humanities students for diverse career opportunities and public engagement. Their perspectives and mine oppose much of what Tavárez outlines.

First, the job market outside of academia is not shrinking for humanists. Tavárez writes, “There is more demand for economists, both in the academy and in the extra-academic labor market, than for humanists.” Perhaps this is because the job title “humanist” does not exist outside of the academy. Humanities majors have skills and abilities that don’t easily translate into job titles like “nurse” or “engineer.” Humanists work under all kinds of job titles from physicians and surgeons, Hollywood directors and actors, politicians, teachers, chaplains, sales and marketing specialists, and lawyers.

If the academy continues to use the market value model to calculate salary, they should consider this range of careers—some of which earn six and seven figures–when determining humanists’ salaries. Or, even better, perhaps it’s time for higher education to create new salary models that are unique to the academy and promise equitable pay across disciplines.

The lack of easy transfer from major-to-job is often seen as a barrier, but it’s an opportunity to teach our students to think creatively about the possibilities that await them after graduation. Humanities faculty can also use this as an opportunity to see how our diverse skills can be used outside the academy. Companies want to hire the very skill sets we have as humanists and cultivate in our classes, such as creative problem solving, encountering diversity and difference, holding multiple viewpoints, and being empathetic. This knowledge is liberating, but we need to see it as such and not as a hindrance. To do that, the humanities need to do a better job of educating faculty and students about the in-demand skills humanists hold and how they translate to sectors beyond the academy.

Likewise, we need to educate the public on what humanists bring to the table. As our research participants have shared, the humanities need a definition of “humanities” beyond a list of disciplines (English, theology, philosophy, history, etc.) or a tautology (“the humanities study humans”). If we can’t clearly articulate our value or who we are, how do we expect students or the public to do the same?

Tavárez points to humanities research as being cheaper to conduct and fund than STEM disciplines. With the rise of digital and public-facing scholarship, humanities research costs are rising. In our study, participants cited lack of funding as one of the biggest challenges to their public humanities work. Specifically, participants shared that they needed more monetary support for software and equipment and for compensating community partners and students for their roles in co-created research projects. Because public research has the impact many universities seek, universities need to start funding projects equitably across disciplines instead of reducing monetary support.

Grant funding is another mechanism used to justify why humanities cost less. That is, STEM fields bring millions of dollars to the university and the humanities don’t. Humanities skills, though, are used when writing those million-dollar grant applications: rhetorical analysis, writing, reading, gathering and synthesizing information, revising, and editing. Successful grants and other kinds of workplace writing are persuasive documents that use rhetorical moves, and they require skills that people are first introduced to in introductory English and philosophy courses. I’ve taught workplace writing classes for over a decade to STEM and humanities majors, and in those classes, students apply for jobs. I have yet to see one job ad that does not ask for skills students gain in introductory humanities courses, such excellent written and oral communication. If introductory humanities courses are offered at a discount, the message being sent, whether intentional or not, is that these skills are less valuable and less important than skills being learned in other introductory courses.

Finally, Tavárez asks, “Would we really be better off were we all to become mediocre economists, computer scientists, data scientists, etc. . . .?” No. We wouldn’t. Just like we would not all be better off if we become mediocre humanists because humanities are the “discount majors.”

No discipline is less valuable than another. A discounted tuition model risks setting us up for further inequity in the academy and across disciplines. If we keep saying that the humanities are in crisis and claim that humanities have lower earning potential than other majors, we will be our own undoing. Who would want a major that’s in crisis and has supposedly lower earning potential? The transformative power of higher education lies in an institution’s ability to help students—and faculty—articulate how classes across disciplines, extracurriculars, and lived experience speak to one another and form students’ minds, hearts, and ways of being in the world. Let’s not create models that will undermine that.

—Liz Angeli
Associate Professor of English
Marquette University

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