The Philosophy Major Is (Kind of) Back on the Rise (guest post by Eric Schwitzgebel)

New data shows a recent slight uptick in the percentage of undergraduates earning philosophy degrees.

The following is a guest post* by Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside). A version of it originally appeared at his blog, The Splintered Mind.


The Philosophy Major Is (Kind of) Back on the Rise
by Eric Schwitzgebel

Back in 2017, I noticed that the number of students completing the Philosophy major in the U.S. had plummeted from a high of 9431 in 2013 (0.54% of all Bachelor’s recipents) to 7305 in 2016 (0.39% of Bachelor’s recipients)—a shocking 23% decline in just four years, despite Bachelor’s degree completions across all majors rising overall. This appeared to be part of a general decline in the humanities. English, History, and foreign languages showed similar declines in the same period. This week I’ve been rummaging through three years’ more data, and the Philosophy major is back on the rise—kind of!

All data are from the National Center for Education Statistics’ excellent IPEDS database, confined to “U.S. only”, Philosophy major category 38.01, and combining first and second majors.

Here’s the breakdown year by year for philosophy since 2011 (i.e., the 2010-2011 academic year):

Graduation Year Number of
Percentage of
BA Recipients
Majoring in
2011 9301 0.57%
2012 9371 0.55%
2013 9431 0.54%
2014 8826 0.48%
2015 8190 0.44%
2016 7498 0.39%
2017 7577 0.39%
2018 7670 0.39%
2019 8075 0.40%

Given the large numbers involved, the recent recovery cannot be due to statistical chance.

Of course, the absolute numbers look better than the percentages, but the percentages are at least stable and have been now for four consecutive years.

Meanwhile, the other big humanities majors continue to decline, as shown in this graph:

For a longer-term perspective we can look back to the 2000-2001 academic year (the earliest year in which information for second majors is available). The percentage of Bachelor’s degree recipients completing a major in Philosophy fell from 0.48% in 2001 to 0.40% in 2019. The percentage completing in English fell from 4.5% in 2001 to 2.1% in 2019; in History, from 2.2% to 1.3%; and in foreign languages, from 2.2% to 1.1%.

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Kate Norlock
3 years ago

Eric, my spouse bets even money that philosophy’s reversal can be attributed in some part to the cultural combo of The Good Place and the popularity of Jordan Peterson. Both take off in 2016, as does the major-rate in above chart.