From the Teaching Division

How Departments Are Tackling Lower Enrollments: Lessons from AHA18

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt, March 2018

The AHA Teaching Division staged what might be termed a productive takeover of the Department Chairs Luncheon at the 2017 annual meeting (in Denver) to talk enrollments in history courses. Through lively and instructive small- and large-group discussions, chairs chatted and swapped war stories. But they also revealed creative strategies, programs, and a range of efforts to address the dilemma of declining or stagnant enrollments.

The infectious energy from the lunch inspired the Teaching Division to propose three roundtables for the 2018 annual meeting in Washington, DC. The goal of the roundtables was to foster a discussion of enrollments among a larger audience by presenting the ideas our colleagues have been developing all year. The roundtables were clearly a success, with each session drawing at least 50 attendees. Representing a range of institutions—including public and private, research- and teaching-oriented, and four-year and two-year colleges and universities—12 panelists (see sidebar) offered succinct, engaging presentations. Just as happened in 2017, discussion proved lively.

Generally, history departments have devised ways to raise their profile on campus and enhance their outreach to prospective majors. At George Washington University, the department chair writes a regular online newsletter that provides updates on students, faculty, and alumni. Many departments have increased their social media presence. The department at Providence College even has a committee dedicated to social media and digital outreach. At Wayne State University, faculty visibility and public engagement have surged through a department blog, social media, and appearances on the campus radio station. SUNY Cortland provides an annual retreat for faculty and students. And Texas Southern University has revitalized the history club and its chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the history honor society.

Departments now recognize that history’s message can reach an audience broader than students and potential majors. Some, like Grossmont College, have conducted community outreach and actively encourage parents and younger siblings of current students to attend department events. The University of Massachusetts Amherst department invites local high school students to sit in on history classes. Another way to reach parents, as the department at Wofford College found, is to collaborate with the admissions office by making them aware of the history major, its appeal to students, and the viable job prospects that history majors enjoy.

History departments have devised ways to raise their profile on campus and enhance their outreach to prospective majors.

Presenters highlighted a number of ways to improve on the general message that history has broad appeal. George Washington now deliberately develops courses for students in other majors. Providence College’s department sponsors faculty talks that build connections between history and timely topics like the Hamilton craze and the new Star Wars movie.

Even as they engage in outreach to students and the world beyond campus, departments have also looked inward, assessing the content and design of their majors to broaden and update their appeal. Although these efforts are necessarily specific to the environment of each institution, they include developing tracks within the major (UMass Amherst) and 4+1 programs (Wayne State). George Washington now allows students to create specializations within the major. Several institutions are cultivating public history programs (including George Washington and Wayne State) and an alternative to the traditional capstone requirement for the major that allows for digital projects (George Washington).

Changes to general education requirements at some institutions have meant that enrollments in introductory courses have taken a hit. Since surveys are the place where most students will encounter history in college (if they do at all), drawing attention to these courses will ultimately enliven the major. Some of the presenters talked about efforts to rethink the history survey.

In a similar vein, some speakers emphasized working with student interests rather than against them. Recognizing the appeal of the business programs at its institution, Providence College deliberately designed a template schedule that would allow accounting majors to double-major in history. The department at Case Western Reserve University has made changes to attract students with top Advanced Placement scores: while it does not award credit toward the major for any AP test score, it invites students who achieve a 5 to take a one-credit course introducing them to college-level history and faculty research interests. Students who complete the course then earn three hours of elective credit.

All presenters agreed that helping students match their career aspirations and their interest in history was crucial. Many have leveraged the participation of alumni to achieve this. At Providence College’s career forum, history graduates come back to talk about the work they’re doing. The University of Wisconsin–Madison offers students a two-credit seminar, which includes presentations from former majors talking about their careers. UMass Amherst runs a “speed dating” event allowing students to interact with a range of alumni who majored in history. And George Washington sponsors alumni career panels.

Some presenters emphasized the importance of history faculty being visible and involved in activities and service beyond the department. The chair at Providence College encourages his faculty to be involved in the faculty senate and strategic planning at the university to make sure the needs of the department are represented in these larger forums. Others stressed that faculty should be aware of the broader issues confronting their institutions. At the University of Houston, the chair brought the upper administration to a department meeting to discuss the university’s budget so that faculty could deepen their understanding of why enrollments matter. Augusta College’s history department has taken advantage of the institution’s centralized advising system to reach students.

In the words of one presenter, improving enrollments requires playing the short game and the long game. In the short term, targeted outreach and appealing activities are popular. For the long term, however, departments are rethinking their majors, their introductory courses, and their place within a shifting educational landscape.

This summary does only brief justice to the rich presentations and discussion at all three roundtables. My thanks to all of the presenters for participating. Clearly, there is enthusiasm for this topic. And the Teaching Division is already at work planning follow-up roundtables for the 2019 annual meeting. We welcome your suggestions for how to continue moving the conversation forward. E-mail me at

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is vice president, Teaching Division, at the AHA.

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