Professional Issues

Bleak Outlook for Academic History Jobs

Paul Conkin, April 1993

Editor's Note: This essay is the first in a series produced by AHA's Professional Division to gauge the trends and patterns in employment for the historical profession. These essays were originally prepared as remarks for the Division's panel on "The History Profession and the Academic Marketplace in the 1990s."

To open our panel, I want to look at some trends in higher education, particularly at the graduate level and in history, and to correlate these trends with some disturbing patterns in our overall economy. We have ridden a roller coaster in the last ten years in attempts to assess the status of graduate training in history, and in trying to assess market prospects over the next decade. It seemed for several years that three factors would lead to a scarcity of Ph.D.'s in history after 1995: 1) a bulge of older historians in universities, with fifty percent now over age fifty and projected to retire in the next two decades, 2) demographic cycles and very high immigration that all but insure major enrollment growth after 1995, and 3) a fifty percent decline in the output of Ph.D.s in history since 1973.

It now seems unlikely that we will enjoy the predicted boom in jobs for new historians. Higher education, for forty years a growth industry, faces stability or retrenchment over the next decade. Since 1950, total enrollment, including that in two-year colleges, has exploded from less than 3,000,000 to over 14,000,000, the number of institutions from 2,000 to 3,500. Public universities now enroll 80 percent instead of an earlier 50% of all students. Women have moved from 37 percent of students to over 51%, minorities from 10 percent to 17 percent. The faculty has expanded from around 200,000 to around 800,000; total employment to over 2,000,000, or higher than in any manufacturing industry. Federal funding has jumped from less than one billion to around fifteen billion, not counting aid or guaranteed loans to individual students. The budgeted expenditures of colleges and universities have exploded to over $125 billion or, more critical, from less than 1 percent of GNP in 1950 to approximately 3 percent today, or by far the highest commitment to higher education of any country in the world.

This growth has accompanied some important structural changes. Our system of higher education is now diverse and hierarchical. It is highly accessible at the bottom, very selective at the top. The smallest growth has been in the number of full-time, post-high school, residential students in four-year bachelor's programs (today only 2,000,000, or 15 percent of the total). Almost 4,000,000 of our 14,000,000 students are over 30, and these disproportionately women. Around 1,500,000 are graduate or professional students. In part overlapping these two groups are 5,800,000 part-time students, a major share of these among the over 6,000,000 students in two-year institutions. Access to our best universities or liberal arts colleges remains highly correlated to income and class. Among youth in families in the upper 20 percent of incomes—above $50,000—over 60 percent attend college, and a high proportion attend quality, four-year colleges; among those in families in the lowest 20 percent in income, barely 20 percent attend college, and then usually as commuting or part-time students in community colleges or former teachers' colleges.

The expansion was equally impressive in graduate education. From 1961 to 1971—the sixties—Ph.D. production grew threefold, from 10,000 to over 30,000 degrees each year. Overall, the number of Ph.D.'s fell about 10 percent in the late seventies and early eighties, and since then has risen back to the peak level of 1972, with foreign enrollment a major cause of the overall recovery. The bulge in the early seventies was much higher in the humanities, and the subsequent dropoff much sharper—for history a 50 percent retrenchment by the early eighties, or down from 1,215 Ph.D.'s in 1973 to an average, over the last decade, of about 600. The small number of foreign students has retarded Ph.D. growth in history as compared to several other disciplines (only 10 percent in history as compared to 30 percent in political science, 40 percent in economics, and 50 percent in math). The great bulge began because of the choices made by B.A. graduates in the early sixties, a period when high student preferences for the humanities joined the booming enrollment growth, and when graduate students enjoyed draft deferments. The source of the sharp downturn after 1973 lay in undergraduate choices made in the mid and late sixties, influenced by the new draft vulnerability of graduate students after 1967.

In the boom of the sixties the number of Ph.D. programs in history doubled, from 61 to 118 (today 124). The 50 percent drop in graduate enrollments in history did not lead to a suspension of many Ph.D. programs. But the expansion of Ph.D.-granting institutions did alter some enrollment patterns. Older and higher quality graduate programs were most responsive to market shifts, with over a 50 percent drop in enrollment in these best schools. The lower quality programs, many new and marginal in size, were less responsive to market trends, and produced by the eighties a larger share of a declining number of Ph.D.s. This has resulted in a decline in the overall quality of Ph.D.'s, and has helped create a large pool of less competitive job seekers. History graduate programs, as a whole, have had the highest attrition rate (50 percent) of all disciplines save education, and also the longest completion time (over eight years). Attrition is highest and completion later in new, low quality programs. But among elite graduate programs, the smaller ones (Harvard, Princeton) have the lowest attrition and earliest completion rates, suggesting that size is not a necessary barometer of quality.

Several factors contributed to a revolutionary growth of research universities from 1950 to 1973—the baby boom, an unprecedented revolution in agricultural productivity that largely fueled our steady economic growth, the military and commercial ascendancy of the United States in the Cold War years. The unprecedented economic growth rate (almost three percent a year), when combined with mildly egalitarian social programs, maintained rising and usually realized expectations at all but the very lowest income levels, and assured a more equal distribution of income and wealth than ever before or ever since. The growth, and with it a greater ability and a willingness to suffer tax increases at the state level, led to a rapid growth in public expenditures for services, particularly for education, yet a growth that did not seem onerous to taxpayers.

This all began to change in the late seventies. Growth slowed as inflation soared. Accompanying this was a profound shift in income and wealth distribution. From 1977 to 1989, by reasonably firm estimates, all the slowing growth in wealth and income went to the top 40 percent of families, with almost 90 percent of the gain going to the top 10 percent (families with incomes over $65,000). For the top one percent of families real incomes more than doubled in those twelve years. At the same time, 60 percent of American families lost in real income, with the bottom 40 percent falling back by 10 percent (never since the Great Depression had so many suffered so much downward mobility in such a short period of time). The recent Federal Reserve report on wealth holding (much more difficult to measure than incomes) shows an ever greater accumulation at the top. The riches one percent of families now own 37 percent of all wealth; the richest 10 percent, 68 percent. Since 1989, with recession, real incomes have gone down for all but the top 10 percent of families.

More stable, skilled, and traditional families (disproportionately white and misleadingly labeled middle class) have done reasonably well, despite the slowed growth and an unprecedented use of credit to postpone full payment for an upper income cornucopia. A high percentage of college graduates are from families in the top 40 percent income brackets. The dramatic losses have been among those without college education and in less skilled employment. Balancing their losses have been the almost unbelievable gains for the top one percent, the effect of what some refer to as our celebrity society, or what I see as our increased acceptance of a lottery mentality—huge prizes for the few—the best athletes, heart surgeons and trial lawyers, actors and singers, and above all for top executives in corporate and banking and even academic circles—with less left over to distribute to all the rest.

Closely correlated to these shifts in income and wealth is the statistical premium on gaining college degrees. Now college graduates, across the board, earn 65 percent more than non-graduates, or the largest spread in history. This premium is not necessarily the direct result of quality education, but correlates with class and wealth, with occupational choices and family expectations. In our extremely meritocratic society, one in which symbols and proper certification and friendship networks are so controlling, it is clear that the cash value of a degree from our elite research universities or liberal arts colleges, as well as select professional schools, is now soaring. Here the income gap may be as high as 300 percent. Except for athletes and actors, such prestigious degrees are almost a prerequisite for joining the top five percent of incomes. These facts insure a continued solicitude for higher education, both among families already in the higher income brackets, and among aspiring families who want to move up. In the eighties, such realities lay behind the almost unbelievable willingness of ambitious parents, often at great sacrifice, to commit a heretofore undreamed percentage of family income to send Johnny and Susie to elite private or prestigious state universities. Soaring tuition income funded a ballooning growth in the cost of private higher education throughout the eighties, even as enrollments stabilized.

We are now beginning to reap the delayed consequences of these economic shifts. Despite the fact that quality higher education now seems more indispensable than ever before, the financial squeeze is on. However much individuals are willing to pay for their own children's education, they are strongly resistant to more taxes for other people's children. This affects all higher education. Private research universities are no longer really private, for even more than public universities they have become dependent on federal dollars (over sixteen percent of their budgets are tied to federal research grants, while their students are often dependent on federal loans or scholarships), and thus they are suffering both from the retrenchment in such funds and the increasing resistance of parents to unending tuition increases that for a decade have averaged over double the inflation rate. The strain is even greater in public universities, for they face cuts in state funding in addition to further cuts in federal support. Above all, they face a popular revolt against taxes that is quite understandable, particularly among the sixty percent of now downwardly mobile families who pay a great deal more than their fair share of regressive state sales taxes and federal Social Security taxes.

These trends seem all but irreversible, even as we move out of the recent cyclical recession. It is hard to find any basis for a sustained growth rate of even two percent, let alone three percent. Not all growth will support higher private spending, and thus make taxes more palatable. Our economy is bogged in an unprecedented level of private and public debt. It is unlikely that any technological breakthroughs, short of fusion energy, will duplicate those in agriculture, which sustained the high growth if the fifties and sixties, or in electronics, which sustained the more modest growth of the seventies and eighties. Maintenance of our infrastructure and more attention to our environment will draw ever more funds from immediate private consumption. For humane reasons, possibly also security reasons, the United States will have to devote more of its income to the horrendous problems of the Third World, a world already mired in a Malthusian nightmare.

Given these somber realities, I suspect the claims of higher education upon our GNP will remain at about three percent. Growth in support for higher education will do well to keep up with overall economic growth, and will not keep up with enrollments. Unless universities turn away students, they will have to require increased faculty productivity on existing and already ill-maintained campuses. This is happening already—a net reduction of faculty over the last two years despite small enrollment increases. This is reflected in larger classes and above all in a disturbing increase of non-tenure-track, temporary, and part-time employment, with many part-time instructors paid at a rate of no more than $15,000 a year if calculated on the basis of realistic full-time loads.

With these summary facts in mind, let me return to the three factors that favor an increased demand for history Ph.D.s. First, requirements. Over 10,000 history professors with the Ph.D. will probably retire in the next two decades; at least 2,000 without the degree will also retire. But the likely relaxation of maximum retirement ages in 1994 may extend such retirements, to an extent impossible to predict. Still, I believe that departments will, despite cyclical delays, eventually hire replacements for almost all these vacated slots. The continued retrenchment in higher education will reflect a failure to grow as fast as enrollments, not a sustained loss in existing positions. This means something over six hundred vacancies each year until at least 2010.

Second, enrollment increases. These are all but insured, for nothing indicates a lowering of the proportion of high school graduates that will attend college. Two demographic trends support this outlook—a cyclical although mild bulge of students now entering high school, and an often overlooked but exploding number of immigrants into the United States (they may help increase the population by 25,000,000 in this decade). What I doubt is that university administrators will be able to win increases of funding to match the higher enrollments, despite their past effectiveness in both begging and lobbying.

Finally, the curtailment of Ph.D. production in history. Firm data, plus the impressions of professors in most graduate departments, already document both a gradual increase in graduate enrollments and more quality applicants. Our scandalous attrition rates should drop, perhaps are dropping. Departmental concern, and outside pressures, particularly from the Mellon Foundation, may lower completion times. Thus, I predict an average of at least 800 annual Ph.D.s in history by the late nineties, up 200 above the average of just over 600 in the last decade.

Will there be enough jobs? That depends upon what one means by enough. I doubt that we will have jobs for every Ph.D. I am not sure it is desirable to have so many, or to eliminate competition for such jobs. If, in 1998, we graduate 800 Ph.D.s, ten percent will be foreign students, most not competitors for American jobs. Approximately 20 percent will gain jobs in public history fields. About 70 percent (or 560) will compete for academic jobs, with the great base of such jobs still in comprehensive universities (the former state teachers' colleges). Even the most modest projections indicate a demand for at least 560 newly minted historians each year, but competing for jobs then, as now, will be a large pool of former Ph.D.s, some now unemployed, some on postdoctoral fellowships, many in one-year temporary positions (our Methodist-like itinerants), and a distressing number in part-time positions. I had hoped, even kept anticipating over the last twenty years, that we could place a large share of that accumulated surplus in two-year colleges. It has not happened, and for reasons of funding and of academic culture probably will not happen in the near future.

My conclusions may seem pessimistic. They are tied almost entirely to what I believe will be sustained financial pressures upon higher education, not upon any skewed relationship between supply and demand. I see no return to the booming sixties. The market for historians will remain very competitive, but not cruelly so and possibly not quite as competitive as today. I see no return to the dismal early eighties. Most Ph.D.s will get a position that utilizes their training, but not quickly or easily. Itinerancy or part-time work will remain the first step for half our graduates. Tenure-track positions, as a proportion of the total, will continue to decline. The stress within tenure-track jobs will increase, because tenure standards will continue to go up. Joining the few casualties at the start will be an increased number who lose positions when they fail to get tenure. Despite the enormous prestige of higher education, and its obvious clout in an ever more meritocratic and elitist social system, the hard competitive realities that have already helped transform most industries are finally catching up with us, just as they are catching up with the largest and most privileged service industry—medicine.

—Paul Conkin, Vanderbilt University, is a member of the Professional Division.