From the News column in the December 1998 Perspectives
AHA Surveys Indicate Majors and BAs Drop While Enrollments Rise
Robert B. Townsend, December 1998
History departments are attracting fewer history majors and producing fewer history BAs than five years ago, even though they are offering more courses and total undergraduate enrollments have increased.
The decline in history majors, as reported by departments in the AHA Directory of History Departments and Organizations, is quite gradual with annual declines of between 1 and 3 percent since 1995, and comes on the heels of a 61 percent increase in the late 1980s (Table 1). This trend corresponds to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, which show a similar drop in the production of history BAs between 1992 and 1996 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) after a large increase between 1986 and 1992.
This is largely a reflection of a much wider pattern of declining undergraduate enrollments nationwide, which the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) expects to turn around within the next year or two. The NCES projects growth in undergraduate enrollments to 2008.1
The AHA's data on history majors suggests that this decline is extremely uneven in its effects, however, as the largest declines occurred at private institutions and in the Northeast. At the 420 departments listed continuously in the Directory since 1986, the number of history majors at institutions in the Northeast fell 8 percent between 1992 and 1998, with much smaller 3 percent declines in the Midwest and West. At the same time, the declines occurred primarily at private colleges and universities where an 11 percent decline occurred, as compared to a mere 1 percent drop at public institutions.
These patterns are particularly striking because the Northeast and private institutions experienced the least amount of growth during the boom of the late 1980s. Between 1986 and 1992 there was a 61 percent increase in history majors overall, but only 46 percent growth in the Northeast, compared to growth of almost 70 percent in the Southeast and Midwest and more than 80 percent in the Southwest. Similarly, there was only 33 percent growth in history majors at private colleges and universities, compared to a 76 percent increase at public institutions.
Courses and Enrollment Rise
Despite the recent declines, history departments report they are offering more courses and enrollment has been rising since 1989, when the AHA began conducting annual surveys on these questions.2
According to the surveys, student enrollments in U.S. history rose 22 percent between 1989 and 1997, and the number of course offerings rose by 11 percent in the same period.
The data on European history offers a mixed picture, as the number of students enrolled in European history courses fell 3 percent between 1992 and 1997, after a 16 percent increase over the previous four years. At the same time, the number of course offerings moved in the opposite directions-falling 6 percent between 1989 and 1992, and then rising a scant 1 percent between 1992 and 1996. A number of department chairs suggested that this reflects the reintegration of Western Civ courses into the general education curriculum during the late 1980s and early 1990s, which significantly increased average class sizes and reduced the number of specialized courses a faculty member could take on.
In contrast, the number of course offerings for regions outside the United States and Europe rose dramatically, with 50 percent more courses offered in 1997 than there were in 1989. Enrollments rose at a more modest 12 percent over that period.
Asian history is the largest field outside the U.S. and Europe with an average of five courses taught and 127 students enrolled per year at each department. Latin American history courses average 2.8 classes per year with 83 students enrolled, and African history averages 2.5 classes per department with 53 enrolled. By contrast, the average number of U.S. history courses taught is almost 20.5 per department with 1,235 enrolled, and European history averages nearly 17 courses with 858 enrolled.
1. National Center for Education Statistics, Projections of Education Statistics to 2008, available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs98/pj2008.
2. Since 1989, the AHA has sent out surveys to the more than 600 history departments listed in the AHA Directory of History Departments, inquiring about course offerings, enrollment, and faculty employment data. The data provided in this article draws on information from the 1988-89, 1991-92, and the 1996-97 surveys, with between 33 and 45 percent of the departments responding to each survey. For 1989 N=235 departments, for 1992 N=274, and for 1997 N=218.