The Decline in History Majors: What Is to Be Done?
Julia Brookins, May 2016
As the March 2016 issue of Perspectives on History reported, the number of people earning a US bachelor’s degree in history dropped sharply in 2014 from a year earlier and may continue to fall over the next few years. We solicited reports and impressions from department chairs and talked to history faculty members at different types of colleges and universities, asking how things looked in their programs and what the implications for other history departments might be.
The respondents most commonly invoked the economic recession that began in 2008, which reinforced a greater cultural emphasis on the expense of postsecondary education and its relative importance for future economic security. Students and parents often make decisions about degree programs based on how they perceive their career relevance. Intense popular and curricular emphasis on education and careers related to STEM also influences many people’s expectations about likely fields of study and employment. History departments, for the most part, are still catching up to other academic units in gathering and presenting information about the range of careers their graduates pursue and how their careers compare to those of other programs’ graduates, in economic and noneconomic terms.1
There are plenty of ideas about what is happening to history BA numbers. One is that moving away from research and teaching centered on Europe and the United States has undercut students’ interest in studying history. A 2014 analysis of reported department specialties and degree completions suggested, however, that the broadening of faculty research and teaching specialties did not correlate with declining numbers of history majors. On the contrary, departments with diverse specializations “were more likely to have increased their share of bachelor’s degrees” than those without them. In addition, the analysis “found that . . . a wide majority of departments continue to list themselves as having a specialization in the US and Europe.”2
In most cases, however, the data we have cannot determine whether a hypothesis is supported by strong evidence. A host of other variables may be having differential impacts. Departments formulating strategies to maintain or increase majors might consider the following factors.
Gender breakdown of the undergraduate student population: Nationally, there are three male history majors for every two female history majors. Declining proportions of male college students will continue to affect program cohorts negatively unless more women choose history.
The history program’s reputation for rigor: This may be a factor in certain campus climates, but departments must think carefully about how prospective students encounter the expectations that their program has for its graduates. Rigor and lack of student success are not the same things. Departments may need to embrace changes that reinforce learning and be able to provide good evidence to entering students that the history program is structured to support their academic achievement.
Heavy reliance on required introductory courses to recruit students: Conventional wisdom among history faculty members has been that introductory courses are the best recruitment tool for attracting history majors. As college-going has undergone big changes over the past few decades, however, the students in the lower-division campus courses are a smaller pool to draw from. Today, more students who enter a bachelor’s degree program have previous course credits from community colleges, AP courses, dual or concurrent enrollment courses, and other sources. Departments that expand their recruitment beyond on-campus introductory courses may be able to find more of today’s college students. Direct communication and coordination between faculty peers at two-year and four-year academic units becomes more important to discovering and launching students who want to major in history.
Creation of new majors: As choices for students expand, history departments that actively engage with faculty colleagues in new and existing programs may be more likely to retain students. Facilitating double majors and developing or promoting a history minor goes along with this approach.
Changes to general education curricula: History faculty members and department chairs with whom I spoke agreed that changes to history’s place within general education have played a role in the number of undergraduate majors. Students can now often navigate the breadth of institutional offerings and choose among baskets of courses. While there are risks as designated distribution requirements disappear, there are also tremendous opportunities for more engaged classrooms and for moving introductory history courses beyond surveys of broad topical areas toward an emphasis on effectively training undergraduates in core concepts and competencies of historical thinking.
Declining career prospects in fields traditionally associated with history: Some states implemented hiring and/or salary freezes for K–12 teachers in the wake of budget crises precipitated by the recession. The past few years have also seen a significant constriction of early-career employment opportunities in the legal profession. If law school no longer seems like a good bet, the history curriculum that was great preparation for that path might lose its attraction for some students.3 Historians need to practice communicating that history skills are foundational for many career paths and be able to outline that range of occupations to undergraduates.
Regional demography: The number of traditional college-age or younger residents of certain metropolitan areas and entire states has fallen, while it has increased in other regions. Overall enrollments may be down at institutions in aging regions, and faculty may need to take different steps to reach students.
The current decline in history majors appears to be driven by structural changes in the incredibly diverse landscape of American higher education and the national economy, local variables that reflect the consequences of actions and policies at several levels, and longer-term demographic shifts. It will be at least a few years before we can see how faculty and administrators’ efforts to revitalize and promote history undergraduate programs will influence the size of future history cohorts and the quality of their learning experiences.
Julia Brookins is special projects coordinator at the AHA.
We asked several history department chairs and faculty about the changes in their undergraduate programs over the last few years. Featured here are three departments—one that is growing, one that has shrunk by 40 percent, and one where numbers are declining and changes in general education requirements are forcing faculty to reconsider the role of history in the wider curriculum.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York
John Jay College eliminated its liberal arts majors across the college in the 1970s due to budget crises. The global history major, introduced in 2008, was designed with attention to learning strategies, interactive courses, work with archives and museums, and microhistory seminars. The program has grown, and it awarded 29 bachelor’s degrees in 2014. As associate professor of history Matthew Perry says, “We really feel like the administration is behind us in trying to grow and maintain the program. . . . Meeting students where they are has got to be a big part of the adjustment.” Students envision themselves moving into nonprofit work, local government, and social service careers. History faculty participate in campus events, like speed networking, to get students to explore career options. The department also works to make connections across campus with other centers and programs, like the prelaw center. The college’s new general education program eliminated history requirements, but the department offers courses in all the new learning categories. Its general education history of science course is, in fact, consistently oversubscribed.
University of California, Los Angeles
UCLA has been the largest bricks-and-mortar undergraduate history program in the country for more than 20 years. The number of majors fell 45 percent from 2007–08 but have rebounded somewhat to 40 percent below the peak. Stephen Aron, professor and chair, says the history department responded to falling numbers by making changes to the major, embracing the chance to create “a deeper, richer, and more intense experience and educational opportunity for students.” The department now offers smaller seminars with faculty and increased research opportunities for undergraduates—more history majors now choose to do yearlong senior theses. The department has also been reaching out to community colleges to increase the number of transfer students who are history majors and has launched a new history minor. More attentive to undergraduate students’ careers, the department hopes to make a significant contribution to the new general education requirement for courses on diversity.
York College of Pennsylvania
The college’s new general education curriculum keeps the department going in a positive direction despite fewer majors. History courses are now offered in American citizenship and global citizenship categories but share space with courses in government, literature, geography, and economics, among others. Kay McAdams, associate professor and coordinator for history in the department of history and political science, and one of the leaders in the new general education curriculum, says, “I felt pretty strongly that we were not going to get anywhere with an argument based on turf. . . . We are competing, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.” The department invests a lot in faculty development, including for contingent faculty, and focuses on putting forward the best teaching in general education courses. It encourages pedagogical experimentation and does not penalize risk-taking in teaching evaluations. The department is working to establish partnerships with other programs whose students can benefit from history, like the college’s new program in intelligence analysis.
1. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project (http://humanitiesindicators.org/) makes related, national-level information easy to find, although I would venture that regional breakdowns and institution-specific data on alumni would be even more useful to students trying to make a decision about their major.
2. Allen Mikaelian, “Department Specializations and the History Major: What We Learned from the AHA’s 2014–15 Directory,” Perspectives on History, October 2014, http://historians.org/publications-and-directories/ perspectives-on-history/october-2014/ department-specializations-and-the-history- major.
3. In 2009–10, 171,514 LSATs were administered. In 2014–15, that number was down just over 40 percent to 101,689. Law School Admission Council, http://www.lsac.org/lsacresources/data/lsats-administered.
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