Clio's Charm Holding Fast? History Major Numbers Continue to Rise at Most Institutions
Robert B. Townsend, October 2012
Despite the increases, over the past three years, department chairs from an array of institutions have written to ask whether history programs are experiencing a contraction in enrollments and majors, fearing (in the words of one department chair) that "students are looking for degrees that translate into immediate jobs.
Fortunately, the available data provides very little evidence of contraction in our discipline. The latest information (for the 2009–10 academic year) shows history reaching a 36-year high in the number of degrees conferred, as history programs conferred 35,198 baccalaureate degrees—an increase of 1.4 percent over the year before, and 39.4 percent higher than a decade earlier (Figure 1).
And in a survey of 109 history departments last year, only 17.8 percent of the programs reported a decline in enrollments since the 2007–08 academic year. Nearly twice as many departments (34.6 percent) reported that growing enrollments over the same span.
The departments reporting decreases cited a wide variety of causes—many of which had nothing to do with the appeal of history relative to other subjects. Notably, a number of chairs attributed declining enrollments to budget cuts that reduced the number of courses and sections on offer. Only a few of the respondents cited evidence of a turn toward professional majors (such as business) because of the lean financial times
Departments with growing enrollments, on the other hand, cited a number of changes in their departments and institutions, such as wider growth in the number of students at their institutions, increased attention to history in general education requirements, and expanded course offerings in the department.
Part of the perceived contraction may be a result of slowing growth in the number of students taking majors in history. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of students earning history degrees grew quite rapidly (at an average rate of 5.4 percent per year), before leveling off at around 1 percent from 2008 to 2010.
Only colleges and universities classified by the Carnegie Foundation as "baccalaureate institutions" experienced a real decline in the number of degrees conferred (Figure 2). In comparison, increases at Master's-level colleges and universities proceeded apace, while growth at research universities was essentially flat.
The other notable institutional trend is that much of the growth over the past five years has occurred at public colleges and universities. The number of baccalaureate degrees conferred in history increased 9.4 percent at public institutions from 2006 to 2010, while growing a scant 0.7 percent over the same period at private institutions.
The two trends could have important implications for the future direction of history doctoral studies, as students in doctoral programs are much more likely to have earned their degrees at baccalaureate or high-research institutions, and as recently as 2005, a disproportionate number of students earning history doctoral degrees earned their undergraduate degrees at private institutions.1
Even though the number of new graduates in history continues to grow, department chairs are not entirely wrong in their perception that history is losing some ground relative to other fields. Over the past three years, the growth in the number of students earning degrees lagged behind the growth in other disciplines. While history baccalaureate degrees increased 1.4 percent the 2009 and 2010 academic years, the number of undergraduates earning degrees in all fields increased 4.4 percent.
Because of the disparity in growth, history fell to just 2.13 percent of the undergraduate degrees conferred in academia. As recently as the 2005–06 academic year, history accounted for 2.26 percent of the baccalaureate degrees conferred (Figure 3).
Even with the slight decline in history's market share, the field still remains well above its nadir in the 1980s, when history fell to barely 1.6 percent of the undergraduate degrees conferred. History has largely kept pace with rapid growth in college enrollments over the past decade, which fueled significant growth in department faculty until the forced cutbacks resulting from the recent recession.
Part of the growth can be attributed to an increase in the number of programs conferring history degrees. In the 2010 academic year, 1,216 colleges and universities conferred at least one baccalaureate degree in history. That reflects a modest increase from just a decade earlier, when only 1,126 institutions awarded degrees in our field.
The nation's colleges and universities awarded an average of 29 history degrees, but there were wide variations in the number of degrees conferred. Almost one-sixth of the institutions (217) awarded fewer than five baccalaureate degrees in history in the 2009–10 academic year, while UCLA conferred 557 degrees. UCLA stands out far ahead of the rest of the field, as the second largest department, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, conferred 281 degrees.
Demographics of Degree Recipients
If history lags behind other disciplines in attracting students, an important part of the difference may stem from significant demographic differences between history and the rest of the academy. As the undergraduate population in academia has grown significantly more diverse in recent years, the student population in history remains significantly more white and male (Figure 4).
Among the 2010 recipients of undergraduate degrees in all fields, women earned 57.2 percent of the degrees, as compared to 40.7 percent of the degree recipients in history. And 34.6 percent of the students earning undergraduate degrees were classified as minorities—down from 24 percent in 1995. In comparison, in 2010, 23.6 percent of the history degree recipients were identified as racial or ethnic minorities.
History is becoming more diverse by both measures, and at a slightly faster rate than in other disciplines, but we start from a much smaller base. In 1995 women earned 37.7 percent of the history baccalaureate degrees, while racial and ethnic minorities received 15.8 percent.
Part of the gap between history and other fields can be attributed to the wide array of gender, ethnic, and area studies fields that tend to attract students interested in history work alongside literary and social science fields. In contrast to the gender breakdown in history, 67.6 of the degree recipients in those subjects were women, while 44.8 percent were identified as racial or ethnic minorities.
The available data does not provide any basis for broader speculation about why students drawn to history are so different demographically, but the differences clearly limit the number of students that can be attracted to the discipline.
Robert Townsend is the deputy director of the American Historical Association.
1. Robert B. Townsend, "Privileging History: Trends in the Undergraduate Origins of History PhDs," Perspectives (September 2005), 14—20.