Professional Issues

Rising Enrollment a Challenge for the Future

Barbara Alpern Engel, November 1993

As part of the AHA Professional Division's survey of the current employment situation, I examined aspects of the situation we find ourselves in as professors and teachers of history to undergraduates and as trainers of graduate students, the historians of the future. I wanted to identify the trends in undergraduate and graduate enrollment over the past couple of decades and to take a look at our current situation and, on that basis, to offer some thoughts about the future. Published data answered most of my questions, but in a few instances, I drew on information provided by my own department at the University of Colorado, which is a large public university with an enrollment of approximately twenty thousand undergraduate and five thousand graduate students.

Let me begin with undergraduate teaching. As the figures in Table 1 indicate, interest in the study of history is undergoing a slow but steady resurgence at the undergraduate level. To be sure, the number of graduating history BAs remains far below the numbers in the golden years of the early 1970s. Moreover, since the overall number of graduating seniors increased during this time, history majors have represented a smaller proportion of graduates. Nevertheless, the trend seems clear; the decline in history majors seems to have bottomed out in 1985 and begun again to climb. In each of the last two years shown in Table 1, 1989 and 1990, the growth was about 10.5 percent over the preceding year. We do not have national figures for history majors for the years since 1990, but our experience at the University of Colorado suggests that the increase in history BAs continues.

The University of Colorado may or may not reflect trends underway elsewhere, but if it is at all typical, then the growing number of undergraduate history majors is only the tip of a much larger iceberg. I was unable to obtain nationwide figures for undergraduate enrollments, but where I teach, they have skyrocketed. The growth in the number of history majors at our institution paralleled the nationwide increase, then really took off after 1988, when history became a crucial block in a revised, university-wide core curriculum. The result is that not only do most of our courses fill up, but sometimes, the number of students waiting to get into a course is almost as large as the number actually enrolled in it. It may be that the student demand we are now experiencing is no different from what my older colleagues experienced more than twenty years ago, in the late sixties and early seventies. However, I suspect that in the foreseeable future, the outcome of increasing demand for history courses will be somewhat different than it was in the past.

In 1970, the response to student demand was often to expand the number of tenure-track hirings. Nowadays, in our straitened fiscal climate, universities typically adopt a different strategy. Graduate-student teachers take up some of the slack; short-term hirings much more. There can be no question that short-term and one-year appointments have proliferated, but the numbers are hard to document because so many of the positions go unadvertised. Such hirings are likely to increase in the future. As of 1989, these positions were disproportionately filled by women; over 16 percent of women faculty members filled positions as lecturers, adjuncts, and others, as compared to under 12 percent of male faculty. Full-time faculty must satisfy the remainder of the growing student demand. In some institutions, and ours is one, this has meant ballooning class size. Survey courses routinely enroll one hundred fifty to two hundred students or even more, and even our upper-division classes, offered to juniors and seniors, have mushroomed in size. Where once we taught fifty students, now we teach seventy-five to one hundred; classes that once enrolled one hundred now draw one hundred fifty to two hundred students.

Another way to satisfy accelerating demand is to increase teaching loads. Professors in many public colleges and universities are currently under pressure by state legislatures to teach more classes. Thus, in the current fiscal climate, growing enrollments and resurgent interest in history may turn out to be something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the growth bespeaks a healthy interest in our shared human past and a willingness to study it seriously. It also means more engaged students in our classroom, or so I've found. But judging by the decline of advertised positions in the past two years, it certainly has not translated into new, full-time, tenure-track hirings, and there is no guarantee that it will in the near future. Instead, colleges and universities may prefer to hire short-term faculty on a course-by-course or yearly basis and to increase the workload of full-time tenure-track and tenured faculty.

Graduate enrollments are rising as well. In the past few years, they have increased in all graduate fields. There can be little question that the stagnant economy helped to generate much of the growing interest in graduate education. Faced with poor job prospects and the likelihood of a relatively low entry wage, students who can manage it elect to continue to study, to postpone the moment of truth, and also to raise their qualifications in order to obtain a more attractive position. Conversations I've had with students requesting letters of recommendation also suggest that many find the academic lifestyle appealing: by comparison with other professions, professors seem to enjoy more autonomy, more flexibility in the ways they spend their time, and much easier access to the pleasures of the mind. As we now recover from the acquisitive excesses of the 1980s, such a life may seem more appealing to young people, despite the fact that most professors earn far less than doctors, lawyers, and engineers, not to mention CEOs and middle managers. The increase in graduate enrollment in history has been especially marked, and it is significantly more substantial than in any other field in the arts and humanities (see Table 2). The fact that students choose history may be an index of the good teaching that many of us do in the classroom.

Nevertheless, the growing number of students pursuing graduate work in history poses some problems for the profession. The most obvious is the question of employment. As other participants in the AHA Professional Division's panel have indicated [see Paul Conkin, "Bleak Outlook for Academic History Jobs," Perspectives, April 1993, p. 1 and Susan M. Socolow, "Analyzing Trends in the History Job Market," Perspectives, May/June 1993, p. 3], it seems at least questionable whether the number of jobs will increase as quickly as the number of newly minted PhDs. Here I want to note the unusually high proportion of tenured full professors in the history profession—51 percent in public universities and 43 percent in private, a considerably higher proportion than in most other academic disciplines. It has been argued that the high wages that such senior faculty earn may impede the hiring of new junior faculty and that the number of such senior faculty may also impede the upward mobility of junior faculty. It is therefore worth noting that as a group, historians are older than their colleagues in other humanities disciplines. In 1989, the last year for which we have information, 23.3 percent of historians were aged fifty-six to sixty-five, as compared to 19.9 percent of faculty aged fifty-six and 4.4 percent over sixty-five in all humanities disciplines. Although an unknown proportion of senior faculty members will take advantage of the end of mandatory retirement in 1994 and keep on teaching, the majority will probably retire over the next decade. How many of them will be replaced with full-time, tenure-track faculty remains a question. One hopeful possibility is that the retirements will lower the proportion of faculty members who are full professors earning large salaries, freeing funds for junior hirings. From that perspective, there is room for cautious optimism. But I would emphasize caution. In the current climate, those of us who teach may want to think about our responsibility to be as frank as possible with undergraduates interested in pursuing graduate work and with graduate students about the uncertain future of new PhDs. We may also want to consider whether our graduate programs should continue to expand, as they evidently are doing now, to satisfy the growing demand of talented BAs for graduate training. Is there a point at which such expansion might become irresponsible? Another concern is what I'll call professional lifestyle, for lack of a better term. It may be that the profession is losing at least some of the characteristics that initially inspired students to pursue graduate training. Increasing enrollments, with a stable or declining work force, mean that many of us now work a lot harder teaching our classes than we used to, while also balancing growing pressures in many other realms of our professional lives. We owe it to our graduate students, and to our potential graduate students, to provide as complete a picture as possible of what they can expect when and if they manage to find a job.

—Barbara Alpern Engel is professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder.