Publication Date

April 1, 2004

Latest Survey Data Points to Wide Differences in Undergraduate Class Sizes and Course Offerings

The number of history majors at four-year colleges and universities continues to climb rapidly, according to information provided for listings in the AHA Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations, and Historians. The number of history majors in these departments rose 8 percent between the academic years 2001–02 and 2002– 03 (Figure 1).1 There was a similar surge in the number of bachelor’ s degrees awarded, with the departments reporting a 7.5 percent increase in the number of degrees conferred—a number that hitherto had been creeping up relatively slowly in comparison to the recent increases in majors.

Figure 1

The 516 departments that were listed continuously in the Directory over the past 15 years reported that they had 94,232 history majors in the past year, up from 87,003 the year before. The number of bachelor’ s degrees conferred by those programs climbed from 23,014 to 24,736.

The increases occurred in every category of program and institution type, and in every region of the country. Programs at the large doctoral/research universities set the pace, reporting an increase in majors of almost 11 percent over the previous year. Only 132 reported a decline in the number of majors, as compared to increases reported at 324 programs. The rise in the number of bachelor' s degrees conferred was equally widespread, with all categories of types and locations reporting increases of at least 5 percent.

These trends help to explain the apparent incongruity between recent cutbacks in higher education funding and recent growth in the number of full-time faculty employed in history departments (see related article on trends in faculty). Most (though certainly not all) of the programs experiencing growth have enjoyed a simultaneous increase in the number of full-time faculty employed by the program. In response to some follow-up inquiries, many department chairs reported that university administrations remain generally supportive, if wary, about the future. The department chairs credited a wide range of efforts for boosting student interest—active engagement in shaping teaching preparation and general education requirements, and active advising and recruitment by faculty and staff.

It should be noted that the history profession is not alone in this rising tide of student enrollments. The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) points to an increase of almost 3 percent in the number of enrolled undergraduates and 2.3 percent in the number of enrolled graduate students. Indeed, the ED is projecting further increases of almost 19 percent through the end of the decade. While enrollment in history seems to be rising much faster than that, the ED&#8217s data does not tell us how history is doing relative to other fields.2

Differing Trends in Classes and Enrollments

Our annual survey of departments—a year behind the data in the Directory, but more comprehensive—provides important details on changing trends in the history classroom.3 The responding departments reported a small but substantive increase in the average number of students enrolled in history classes. Between the 2000– 01 and 2001– 02 academic years, the average number of students enrolled in history classes at four-year colleges and universities rose almost 2 percent.

We made an important change for the new survey, and collected data separately for introductory and upper-level undergraduate courses. This allows us to get a better measure of the two levels of courses, separating out the larger introductory classes from the smaller classes of the later years. The differences are quite pronounced. The average class size for introductory courses is almost 58 per course as compared to just 27 for upper-division classes (Figure 2).

Figure 2

However, as one might expect, this masks significant differences in program types. At smaller undergraduate programs (which only confer the bachelor' s degree), the average class size is just 38.7 students for introductory classes as compared to 79.5 in the introductory classes at PhD-granting departments. For upper-level courses the average at BA-granting programs is 19.7 students as compared to 35.1 at departments conferring PhDs.

These marked differences are also reflected in the differences between private and state-supported colleges and universities, as the average introductory class size in public institutions is almost double that of their private counterparts. Departments at state schools reported an average of 76.5 students per class, as compared to 34.7 in private institutions. The difference was not quite as pronounced at the upper levels, but public institutions still averaged 31.3 students while the private schools averaged just 20.5 students per course.

These differences become even more pronounced when we examine the differences in various field specializations. While it may not be surprising that the introductory world history and Western civ classes are enormous—averaging almost 79 and 98 students per class—the introductory U.S. history classes were the largest reported, averaging just over 101 students per class. Not surprisingly, students enrolled for the introductory courses in these three subjects accounted for 56 percent of the students in undergraduate history classrooms.

Figure 3

At private institutions and programs where the highest degree is a BA, the average class sizes were significantly smaller—one-third to one-half the size of their larger counterparts in most fields. In introductory U.S. history courses for instance, this means a difference of 47.9 students at BA programs and 150 students at those conferring the master' s degree (the latter dominated by state comprehensive universities). Similarly, in introductory courses for world history one finds a difference of almost 70 students at the BA level as compared to nearly 150 students per class in PhD-granting departments.

However, there is a trade-off between the smaller class sizes available in bachelor' s programs and the more limited range of courses they can offer. Even using the very broad geographic categories in our survey, a smaller proportion of BA- and MA-level programs are teaching courses about areas outside of the United States and Europe (Figure 3). Particularly at the BA level, this actually understates the differences in coverage, as many programs offer a comparatively generous selection of courses in two or three geographic areas while providing no courses on other parts of the world.

Figure 4

On the other hand, these figures should not lead to the inference that the larger programs lack limitations in coverage. At the larger public colleges and universities and MA-granting comprehensive programs, U.S. history comprises nearly 40 percent of the course offerings, as compared to just 30 percent of the course offerings at private independent institutions (Figure 4). The effect of this U.S. focus is particularly evident in comparison to offerings in Asian history—the largest field outside of Europe. Public institutions offer an average of more than six U.S. history courses for every one in Asian history. The disparities are even more pronounced at MA-level programs, where the ratio between U.S. and Asian history courses is almost 9 to 1. In contrast, at private independent colleges the ratio is closer to 3 to 1.

Courses at the Graduate Level

General trends in course offerings at the graduate level closely parallel the offerings at the undergraduate level. U.S. history is even more dominant than at the undergraduate level, accounting for almost 40 percent of all the course offerings at the graduate level. According to department chairs, this reflects tendencies on the demand side, as more graduate students opt for U.S. history courses.

Figure 5

And there is some evidence to support that claim. U.S. history courses draw an even larger portion of the students enrolling for graduate history courses than their portion of class offerings. At MA-level programs, 42 percent of the course offerings and 46 percent of the students enrolled in graduate history classes were working on the U.S. There was a much narrower margin at PhD-granting departments, where 35 percent of the graduate-level courses and 36 percent of the enrolled graduate students were in U.S. history. But only the field of world history drew a larger proportion of enrolled students than their segment of course offerings in both MA and PhD programs.

As the very low average number of courses per department reflect (Figure 5), most history graduate programs do not offer graduate-level courses in fields outside of the United States and Europe. Particularly at the MA-level programs, other fields are offered in less than 42 percent of the programs. And even in PhD-granting departments, only Latin American and Asian history are offered at a majority of programs.

Figure 6

However, the average number of students per class is relatively even across different fields (Figure 6), particularly in comparison to undergraduate courses, and falls within a fairly narrow span, ranging from 6.4 per class in Asian history to a bit more than 8 in thematic courses not tied to a particular geographic category.

Robert B. Townsend is assistant director for research and publications. Liz Townsend and Katherine Hijar assisted with the tabulation of data for this report.


1. Data tabulated from information supplied for the Directory of History Departments and Organizations for the 1989– 90 through the new 2003– 04 editions. Departments supply the number of history majors in the department the previous year for inclusion in the Directory. The data is tabulated from 523 U.S. history departments listed continuously over that period. These programs produce approximately 91 percent of the history bachelor’ s degrees in the country. In the 2000– 01 academic year, these departments produced 22,991 bachelor’ s degrees, compared to 24,989 history bachelor’ s degrees reported in National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2002, available at To provide continuity where a department failed to supply information for a single year, we interpolated data using the average of the two adjoining years. 

2. According to the Digest of Education Statistics, 2002, based on tabulation of data in Table 187 at The Department of Education’ s most recent projections (in August 2002) estimated that enrollments would accelerate between 15 and 23 percent between 2000 and 2013, National Center for Education Statistics, Projection of Education Statistics to 2013, at

3. The survey asked for information about the 2001– 02 academic year (September 1 to August 31), and received an exceptional response rate—432 of 616 U.S. departments that listed in the 2002 edition of the Directory of History Departments. Unfortunately, only 340 programs provided information on their students and enrollments, though the composition of the responding departments was again similar to the demographics of the surveyed programs. While respondents to the survey formed a representative sample of departments in the Directory (with only a slight overrepresentation of departments at public institutions), the Directory itself is not a representative sample of the many different types of history departments and history faculties in higher education. Two-year colleges and programs where the history faculty is integrated into a multidisciplinary department (such as history, politics, and geography) are significantly underrepresented because they do not usually seek listings in the directory. 

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