Growing Transfers in the Humanities: Student Characteristics and Motivation

This is the third in a series of posts to appear in the “Beyond Transfer” blog relating to the projects we at the City University of New York collectively call A2B: Associate’s to Bachelor’s (vertical) transfer. This post will focus on findings from ATB’s GROWTH (Growing Transfer in the Humanities) project (funded by the Mellon Foundation).

First, though, we would like to tell you a story about one co-author’s college experiences. Similar to many first-generation, low-income, undergraduate students, Rhina Torres entered CUNY with the understanding that obtaining a bachelor’s degree was the only way to obtain financial stability. In a last-minute decision, she chose the major that seemed to make the most logical sense in her pursuit of financial gain—business. In retrospect, though she did not know it at the time, the major Rhina chose was not going to be the only factor determining her career path. Other courses she took, outside her major, played a large role in her ultimate professional and intellectual interests.

Almost all bachelor’s degrees, regardless of major, require a significant proportion of coursework in the humanities. The reading, writing, critical thinking and effective oral communication skills essential to courses in the humanities are essential across many occupations. A recent report showed that the top five skills sought out by employers are communication, teamwork, customer service, leadership and problem-solving skills—and yet many students, like Rhina, do not pursue humanities majors because they perceive them to have low value to employers Further, despite the market demand for the skills honored in the humanities, few programs exist to facilitate the transfer of associate program humanities-focused students to bachelor’s programmes. In contrast, there are many programs for STEM students (here is one example). This apparent lack of structure facilitating successful transfer among humanities students may make it relatively more difficult for these associate degree students, as opposed to STEM students, to achieve their goals of attaining bachelor’s degrees, particularly degrees in the humanities.

To determine whether humanities-focused students are disadvantaged in the transfer process, GROWTH used a mixed-methods approach to study the characteristics of potential humanities bachelor’s degree recipients who first enroll at community colleges. For this study, we categorized a major as belonging to the humanities using the National Endowment of the Humanities definition of the humanities.

First, we conducted nine focus groups targeting humanities-interested students across three CUNY community colleges to gain insights into their major selection motivations and perceptions of the humanities disciplines. A total of 38 percent of the students were currently majoring in liberal arts and sciences, which includes humanities coursework.

We also used CUNY’s institutional databases to conduct a longitudinal study of the 2014 first-time community college freshmen. We analyzed data from almost 20,000 students across seven CUNY community colleges to investigate how major selection and student characteristics are related to transfer to a bachelor’s program, first-term bachelor’s GPA, selection of humanities major upon transfer and graduation from a bachelor’s program. Similar to our focus group recruitment results, we found that very few students enrolled in a humanities discipline in CUNY’s community colleges—in fact, fewer than 500 out of over 19,000 entering students did so. Consistent with national trends, most of the students who initially declared a humanities major were concentrated within visual and performing arts majors.

Many community college students begin their college careers intending to earn a bachelor’s degree and get a good-paying job. Our focus group discussions made it clear that many students enter—and progress through—community college with no clear understanding of what the humanities disciplines and majors are, and how the study of humanities fields might prepare them for careers of value. Even those students who valued the skills and competencies that the humanities courses enhance tended to view their humanities interests as “secondary,” because these students had little idea how these skills and competencies were valued in the labor market. It appears that, in their contact with students, faculty and advisers do not explicitly tie skills and competencies available in humanities studies to employment prospects.

We found that students who became humanities majors in a bachelor’s program after transfer disproportionately originated in liberal arts and sciences associate programs. Further, assessed need for remedial education in writing was negatively associated with choosing a humanities major upon transfer to a bachelor’s program, as was having attended a non-US high school. In contrast, transfer students who majored in STEM at a bachelor’s college tended to have been STEM majors in the community colleges. We also found that the choice of major in a bachelor’s program was strongly associated with first-term posttransfer GPA. Choosing a STEM bachelor’s major was associated with a decrease in first-term GPA and a lower probability of bachelor’s program graduation. However, students who majored in STEM at the associate college tended to have higher graduation rates from all types of bachelor’s programs. We found no disadvantages in terms of academic outcomes after transfer for humanities-focused students compared to their STEM counterparts.

Our research thus indicates that opportunity abounds for colleges to educate students about what the humanities disciplines are, what competencies they instill or develop and what value they have as major workplace courses of study within and beyond the. Further, we believe that we can facilitate bachelor’s degree completion among community college students by supporting the interest in the humanities that is already present in many of our community college students. Given that many community college students are income-driven by necessity, college leaders, faculty and advisers can raise awareness about the skills associated with humanities disciplines and their application to the labor market—not to mention civic, family and personal life. Additionally, colleges could also share degree-completion trends of humanities majors compared to other majors. Humanities majors may be more favorably positioned than STEM students to develop the skills in top demand by employers. These practical considerations could help convince students to pursue their humanities interests.

Humanities degrees not only benefit the students who complete them; they benefit society. A society with a broadly educated workforce will be more richly informed in the face of the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. Virtually all community colleges require some humanities coursework as part of general education. These colleges have an opportunity, if not an obligation, to help students such as Rhina (who graduated Brooklyn College as a childhood education major with a concentration in Puerto Rican and Latino studies) connect their humanities studies to the better lives they seek.


Rhina I. Torres is an adjunct lecturer in the Latin American and Latinx studies department at CUNY–John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Prior to this position, she was a research analyst and project manager at CUNY’s Office of Applied Research and Data Analytics, and supporting research on transfer students. Prior to that she was a researcher for the Education Trust–West, data analysis and other research supporting advocacy strategies for achieving educational equity for students of color and students living in poverty. She holds an MPP from the University of California, Berkeley. David Wutchiett is a data analyst/scientist at CUNY’s Office of Applied Research, Evaluation and Data Analytics, where he has supported research and evaluation projects spanning the topics of transfer, student persistence and Census response. He received an MA in quantitative methods in the social sciences from Columbia University.

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