Latest Directory Data Show Further Growth in Undergraduate History Majors

Robert B. Townsend, November 2001

The number of undergraduate history majors at four-year colleges and universities rose for the second year in a row, marking a clear reversal of the extended declines experienced throughout the mid- to late 1990s. A separate survey of departments also suggests that average class sizes in undergraduate courses are quite high, particularly-as one might expect-in the survey courses. The data also indicates that large areas of the world are not part of the history curriculum at many departments.

In data reported for the 2001-02 edition of the AHA Directory of History Departments, the number of history majors at regularly listing departments rose 1.1 percent over the prior year (Figure 1).1

As the data in the table reflect, the number of history majors is quite important, as the trends in majors closely correspond to the trends in the overall number of bachelor's degrees conferred. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show a roughly parallel drop in the production of history bachelor's degrees between the 1993-94 and 1996-97 academic years. The slight increase in the number of history degrees produced in 1997-98 can be attributed to a bounce back from the slightly faster drop in history degrees. Departments in the Directory reported a similar decrease in bachelor's degrees produced, followed by two more years of decline.

Most of the improvement in the number of history majors occurred at public colleges and universities, which saw an increase of 1.4 percent over the previous year. Among private institutions, the growth was a more modest 0.4 percent.

When viewed by institution type, liberal arts colleges enjoyed the highest growth at 2.3 percent, while programs with master's and doctoral degrees reported only modest gains. This is the opposite of the gains detailed last year, when liberal arts programs lagged behind the rest.

Similarly, when broken down by region, those departments with the largest gains the previous year-in the Northeast and the West-were largely stagnant last year. Almost all of the growth occurred in the Midwest, which saw a healthy 4.9 percent gain over the previous year. In the Southeast, which lagged behind in growth, the number of history majors actually dropped last year by almost 1.5 percent.

Snapshot of History Classes and Enrollments

Underlying the question of history majors and degrees is the issue of how many students are actually enrolled in history courses. Respondents to the annual survey of history departments reported wide variation in the number of history courses and enrollments, depending upon the type of program.2

One of the most striking findings in the survey was the large average class sizes reported at most programs (Table 1A). While it may not be surprising that Western Civ and world history courses are enormous-averaging almost 115 and 83 students per class-average enrollments of over 42 students per U.S. history class point to the continuing predominance of large survey classes. In real terms, these three subjects accounted for 55 percent of the students in history classrooms. Despite recent attention to "active learning" in the classroom and closer engagement with students, most undergraduates are still learning about history in large lecture halls. As Tables 2A and 3A indicate, those who place a premium on small class sizes and more personal contact between teacher and student will prefer private liberal arts colleges where the average class sizes are one-third to one-half the size of their larger counterparts. And as noted elsewhere, undergraduates are also more likely to be taught by a full-time, tenure-track member of faculty in these smaller programs.3

The trade-off, of course, is that there is a more limited selection of courses in these smaller programs. Even within the very general and region-based field categories in the survey, different types of departments and institutions demonstrate significant variations in their course offerings and enrollments. While U.S. history courses comprise almost half of the courses at public and comprehensive (MA-granting) departments, they only account for around a third of the course offerings in liberal arts programs and history departments at private institutions. At the same time, MA programs and departments at public institutions offer a significantly larger number of courses overall, so the actual number of courses offered in each category of non-U.S. history is typically equal to or higher than those in their smaller counterparts.

This is also reflected in the large number of programs that offer no courses in significant areas of specialization (Table 4). As noted elsewhere in the discussion of faculty (see "The State of the History Department: A Report on the Annual Department Survey for AY 1999-2000" on page 3 of this issue), many programs have no field specialists in large segments of study, and offer no courses in these fields. In the area of Middle East history, which has obtained a particular importance of late, only 50 percent of the programs offer undergraduate courses in the subject. Outside of the United States and Europe, only the broad category of Asian history was taught in more than three-quarters of the programs. It should be noted that while world history and Western Civ have relatively low course offerings, this is because one is often viewed as a substitute for the other. One or the other subject is taught at every one of the responding programs with undergraduate students.

In contrast to the size and array of undergraduate class sizes, graduate courses are significantly smaller, but also more homogenous geographically (Tables 1-3B). Notably, the average class size is significantly less than 10 across almost all subjects and in every type of program. At the same time, however, graduate programs are more prone to ignore large areas of the world in their course offerings. Significantly more than half of the programs do not offer courses in fields outside of the United States and Europe (Table 5).

— Robert Townsend is AHA assistant director of publications, information systems, and research.


1. Data tabulated from information supplied for the Directory of History Departments and Organizations for the 1989-90 through the new 2001-02 editions. Departments supply the number of history majors in the department the previous year for inclusion in the Directory. The data is tabulated from 524 U.S. history departments listed continuously over that period. These programs produce almost 90 percent of the history bachelor's degrees in the country. In the 1997-98 academic year, these departments produced 23,699 bachelor's degrees, compared to 25,726 history bachelor's degrees reported in National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2000, available at To provide continuity in years where a department failed to supply the information, we used the average of the two adjoining years.

2. The survey asked for information about the 1999-2000 academic year, and received responses from 442 of 654 U.S. departments that have listed in the Directory in one of the past two years. Only 325 of that number provided information about history classes and enrollments. No time series data is included in this report due to revisions in the formulation of the question, which seemingly resulted in a slight decline in the average number of courses and enrollments at history departments.

3. See "Summary of Data from Surveys by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce," at This is not to criticize the excellent teaching of many part-time faculty, but only to note that these programs make a greater commitment to supporting faculty who can spend more time preparing for their work in the classroom and making themselves available to students outside the classroom. For more on the difference in time commitments, see Linda J. Zimbler, "Background Characteristics, Work Activities, and Compensation of Faculty and Instructional Staff in Postsecondary Institutions: Fall 1998" at