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Enrollment Declines Continue: AHA Survey Again Shows Fewer Undergraduates in History Courses

Julia Brookins, February 2018

Some departments are seeing slight enrollment increases. Jim Bauer/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0In 2017, the AHA conducted a second broad survey of enrollment in history courses (see “Survey Finds Fewer Students Enrolling in College History Courses,” Perspectives, September 2016, for last year’s report). As in 2016, the results show that enrollments in history courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels are declining, although trends vary from year to year and from institution to institution.

This new survey, which opened to department chairs in May 2017 and ran through July, received 113 responses that provided enrollment data. Respondents included 1 Canadian institution, 107 US four-year institutions, and 5 US two-year institutions. These institutions reported a total undergraduate student enrollment in the 2013–14 academic year of around 348,000. Last year, however, 123 substantive responses indicated a total undergraduate history student population of about 497,000 for the 2012–13 year. Despite the smaller number of responses this year, we may still gauge trends among institutional categories.

The 2017 survey asked respondents to provide enrollment numbers for four academic years, from 2013–14 through 2016–17. The survey found that at the history-only participating departments, total undergraduate enrollments in history courses fell 7.7 percent, from 323,883 to 298,821. (This excludes the approximately 10,000 history students at the new University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in 2016–17.) At interdisciplinary or joint departments, enrollments fell 6.3 percent, from 23,980 to 22,479.

Fig. 1 breaks down trends in the Carnegie Classification categories for which we received the most responses. At the 18 responding baccalaureate colleges with a curriculum emphasizing the arts and sciences, total undergraduate history enrollments rose 5 percent from 2015–16 to 2016–17. In sharp contrast, enrollment in undergraduate history courses fell 6 percent between 2014–15 and 2015–16 at the 17 responding institutions classified as Master’s Colleges and Universities: Larger Programs, with an additional 6.3 percent decline from 2015–16 to 2016–17. The drop-off at Doctoral Universities: Highest Research Activity universities was smaller, but it had fallen 2.3 percent last year, 2.35 percent the year before, and around 3.5 percent the year before that. Since the categories represent schools of varying size, the decline at large universities offset the increase at the liberal arts colleges in terms of actual students. Averages thus tell us less than absolute numbers.

But in the survey’s free-response sections, many department representatives commented that their enrollments were stabilizing after years of dramatic declines, with some even reporting signs of a rebound. Deliberate steps that might have helped stem the tide included scheduling the most popular classes during the time slots students find most convenient, developing a history minor or service courses that complement popular majors, and addressing students’ and parents’ concerns about the employability of history majors. One department decided to focus on improving student success and retention, so that their first-year students could stay around to take more history.

Departments also reported more faculty involvement in recruiting students to history courses and to the history major. While a slight majority of the responses in last year’s survey indicated that “none” or “fewer than half” of instructional faculty in their academic units actively recruited, only about 37 percent of the 2017 responses fell into those categories. The percentage of respondents who said that all instructional faculty engaged in recruiting also rose, from 12 percent to 18 percent.

Fig. 1: History Enrollments in Key Institutional Categories.At individual institutions, enrollment trends were uneven. Overall, from 2015–16 to 2016–17, 49 institutions reported increasing or flat enrollments in undergraduate history courses—one outlier saw a rise of 52 percent in that one year—but 63 institutions reported single-year declines, one reaching 41.6 percent. Understandably, small institutions saw the greatest volatility, but some large history programs showed double-digit percentage changes from one year to the next.

The causes of declining enrollments are undoubtedly more complex than our data can show, but the survey revealed several possibilities. Faculty retention and research obligations might be a factor. Many also argue that history enrollments are declining because colleges and universities have restructured undergraduate general education and/or core requirements. But the data show that enrollment in introductory history courses does not appear to be leading the overall decline. While the numbers did drop, the fall was less precipitous than the overall undergraduate decline. From 2012–13 to 2016–17, the survey showed, the 4.96 percent decline in students taking introductory history courses was significantly less than the overall figure.

This year, there were fewer reports of institutions changing their general education program within the past 10 years: 55 percent said there had been no restructuring of general education, compared to just under half last year. The fraction that had experienced such changes recently—within the past year or the past three years—was stable: around 23 percent.

Even at institutions with existing general education programs, not all department representatives thought they were effectively engaging students. While the majority reported that they were contributing as many courses, sections, and faculty as possible to the institution’s general education program, 17 percent said that the academic unit or department that includes history “could be doing more” in the general education program. Faculty in those departments might increase enrollments by offering more general education courses or sections.

Dual enrollment and dual credit offerings are part of the history enrollment picture at a significant minority of institutions. The percentage of respondents whose departments offered dual-enrollment courses dipped slightly, from 37 to 35. Within that group, just over half included those courses in their overall undergraduate enrollment figures. More departments seem to be getting credit for students in dual-enrollment programs, too. This is particularly important at institutions that allocate resources among departments and programs based on student numbers. This year only 34 percent of respondents said their unit did not receive credit for those programs, compared to 43 percent in 2016. Some departments also see the College Board’s Advanced Placement program as a competitor, despite studies showing that AP history students are more likely to take a history course in college.

Notably, graduate enrollment is also down, more sharply than undergraduate enrollment over the same time period. About 60 percent of the institutions responding to the survey offered graduate-level history courses, and the average graduate enrollment fell over 12 percent, from 205 in 2013–14 to 180 in 2016–17.

The AHA plans to conduct the enrollments survey again in 2018, and the Association’s Teaching Division has taken on the issue of enrollments as its focus under the tenure of Elizabeth Lehfeldt (Cleveland State Univ.), vice president for teaching. As the AHA continues to collect both quantitative data and the stories of historians at a range of institutions, patterns may emerge showing the most effective strategies for increasing the number of college students who benefit from a history education.

Julia Brookins is special projects coordinator at the AHA.


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