From the Teaching Division

Addressing the Issue of Declining Enrollments

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt | Oct 17, 2016

In the September issue of Perspectives on History, Julia Brookins shared the results of an AHA survey of undergraduate history enrollments. Chairs and program administrators from about 120 departments in the United States and Canada provided feedback and data about enrollment in all history courses (not just those for majors). The results confirmed what the Association had already suspected, given the discussions on the AHA Communities site and other forums: enrollments are generally declining.

These suspicions had sparked considerable conversation within the Teaching Division. At its June 2016 meeting, the division resolved to make enrollment its major focus for the next three years (essentially my tenure as vice president of the division). A day later, the AHA Council endorsed that decision.

All well and good, but what does this mean? First, it means wrapping our heads around the issue. This is where the recent survey matters considerably. To continue moving beyond anecdote by collecting data, the AHA will reopen the survey in the coming weeks. So if you are a chair or program administrator and haven't participated yet, it's not too late! More information will allow the Association to advocate on behalf of our members and departments and mobilize resources effectively.

Addressing the issue of declining enrollments will also require framing the problem. As a former chair, I know that declining enrollments are troubling at many institutions because they may translate into diminished resources in the future, if they haven't already. Where student credit hours are the coin of the realm, chairs may not be able to make new hires or replace retiring faculty members if enrollments are declining. So, in part, this is an issue of numbers and resources.

But we do ourselves, the discipline, and the profession a disservice if we limit our analysis to calculations about students in classrooms and faculty lines. This data only has significance if we also uphold at every possible turn the inherent value of studying history.

The AHA's Tuning project—a faculty-driven effort to articulate the significance of studying history—has made this argument since its inception in 2012. By developing a Discipline Core, faculty participants have created a common, broadly accessible vocabulary about the value of majoring in history. Tuning has helped allay students' and parents' concerns about "what to do with a major in history" and could help boost the number of majors at all types of institutions. But, importantly, it is grounded in a discussion of why studying history matters. It is not enough to say we need more majors because a declining number of them hurts our ability to protect faculty lines. As AHA executive director Jim Grossman reminded us in the Los Angeles Times ("History Isn't a 'Useless' Major. It Teaches Critical Thinking, Something America Needs Plenty More Of," May 30, 2016), we must also articulate why what these faculty teach is crucial.

Where student credit hours are the coin of the realm, department chairs may not be able to make new hires or replace retiring faculty.

The Teaching Division's enrollment initiative will expand Tuning's scope. We need to involve more faculty and more departments. In the coming months, the Teaching Division will explore ways to disseminate Tuning resources and make them even more accessible to the AHA membership.

The enrollment initiative also focuses on the way the vast majority of college students encounter history: through introductory-level courses. Our argument here should not be markedly different from the one we made about the history major as part of the Tuning project. Presumably, we teach introductory-level history courses because we believe there is value in students studying history. Our goal, then, should be to articulate that value. This will require scaling the Tuning project, especially the Discipline Core, to the level of individual courses. How do our individual survey and introductory courses advance the competencies outlined in the Discipline Core, even if only to lay the groundwork for further study? To take just one example, how might one help students in an introductory world history course cultivate historical empathy (one of the Discipline Core's competencies)? Moving our focus from the major to individual courses will enable us to recruit students into our courses and, ideally, into the major.

Notably, the enrollment survey also included questions about recruitment and outreach efforts. While we wanted to capture a snapshot of current enrollment trends, we were also anxious to gain a sense of what departments are doing and what is working, especially in those cases where enrollments were up or holding steady. Reports on recruitment and outreach were revealing. There is tremendous variation across institutions about how involved faculty are in encouraging students to take history courses or declare history majors. At some places, the faculty clearly do not embrace this as a responsibility. Only 38.8 percent of institutions reported that "most" or "all" faculty participated in such activities. Various factors shaped other departmental cultures, including not wanting to burden contingent faculty and entrusting this responsibility to staff.

I contend that we need to rethink the recruitment question and recognize that at least some of the future of enrollments in history courses lies in the hands of faculty.

Having said that, I recognize that all of us have a finite amount of time spread across the spectrum of research, teaching, administration, and service. So in the coming months, the Teaching Division plans to find a way to collect these recruitment and enrollment strategies in an accessible format so that department chairs, program directors, and interested faculty can employ them, as appropriate.

Additionally, the Teaching Division will host a discussion about enrollment and recruitment at the Chairs' Lunch at the annual meeting in Denver in January 2017. Attendees will have the opportunity to brainstorm, trade ideas, and identify strategies that they can take back to their campuses.

Ultimately, the Teaching Division wants to hear from you on this issue. Thus, I'll end with a series of questions: If you are already addressing issues of enrollment, what can the AHA do to support you? If you think there are things your department could be doing but you don't feel empowered to speak about it, how can we advocate on your behalf or give you the tools that might make those conversations possible? E-mail me with your thoughts and ideas at

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is the AHA's vice president, Teaching Division. The other members of the division are Jeffrey A. Bowman, Trinidad Gonzales, and Brenda J. Santos.

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