Decline in History Majors Continues, Departments Respond

Robert B. Townsend | Sep 1, 2017

University of California, Los Angeles. Rictor Norton & David AllenSince the 2008 economic recession, history department faculty and chairs have noted declines in the numbers of student enrollments and majors. New data from the US Department of Education confirms their observations, as the number of students receiving bachelor’s degrees in history fell 10.1 percent from 2014 to 2015, and 21 percent from the recent high in 2012.

History departments conferred 27,706 baccalaureate degrees in 2015 (compared to 35,065 in 2012), with the declines felt broadly across the discipline. Of the 1,228 institutions that conferred bachelor’s degrees in history in 2012, 71 percent reported a reduction in the number of history graduates three years later.

The history discipline is not alone in these difficulties. As reported by the Humanities Indicators, almost every discipline in the humanities experienced a decline in the number of degrees awarded over the same time period. History stands out, however, as experiencing the largest decline. In comparison to history’s double-digit declines, the humanities as a whole experienced a 5 percent drop in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded, and a 9.7 percent drop from the peak in 2012.

FIG 1: History as a share of all bachelor's degrees conferred by institution typePerhaps equally troubling, history is losing significant “market share” among students earning baccalaureate degrees (fig. 1). In 2003, history accounted for 2.3 percent of all bachelor’s degrees conferred. By 2015, the discipline had fallen below 1.6 percent, the lowest level on record.

Historically, private liberal arts colleges have conferred the largest share of history bachelor’s degrees. Since the recession, however, history’s share has fallen sharply at both private nonprofit and public colleges and universities. Recent growth in the shares of degrees conferred by for-profit colleges used to serve as the lone bright spot for those seeking growth in the awarding of history degrees, but even here, the number of degree recipients recently started to trend downward.

The number of students graduating with a second major in history (which is tabulated separately by the Department of Education) has also been shrinking since 2012, though at a slightly slower rate than among primary degrees (down 18 percent).

Who Is Earning a History Degree (and Who Isn’t)

The underlying demographics of the students earning bachelor’s degrees in history provide some clues as to the challenges for the discipline. Relative to other humanities disciplines and academia as a whole, history awards a smaller share of baccalaureate degrees to women and students from traditionally underrepresented minorities (fig. 2).

FIG 2: Shares of history bachelor's degrees awarded to women and traditionally underrepresented minoritiesAs of 2015, shares of history bachelor’s degree recipients who were either women or from traditionally underrepresented minority groups were both rising, and near historic highs. Women accounted for 40.3 percent of the degree recipients in the discipline—slightly above the recent low of 39.9 percent, but still more than a percentage point below the high-water mark in 2004 (41.7 percent). Nevertheless, while the 2015 level is relatively high for the discipline, it is more than 20 percentage points below the average for the humanities, and 16 percentage points below the average for all bachelor’s degree recipients. Even among recipients of bachelor’s degrees in business and management, women accounted for 46.6 percent in 2015.

Similarly, even though the share of students from traditionally underrepresented minorities (African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American students) earning history degrees reached an unprecedented level in 2015 (15.5 percent), it still fell about 6 percentage points below the rest of the humanities and academia as a whole (22 percent and 21.4 percent, respectively).

Recent gains among traditionally underrepresented minorities and women is somewhat deceptive, as the numbers of degree recipients in both categories are declining, just not as quickly as the numbers of white and Asian American men. For instance, the numbers of both white and Asian American recipients of bachelor’s degrees in history fell 23 percent each from 2012 to 2015, while the numbers of African American and Hispanic/Latino American recipients fell 15 percent and 2 percent, respectively.

Responding to the Challenge

History departments are not sitting idly by as their numbers decline. Phone and e-mail exchanges with a half dozen departments revealed renewed efforts to attract new students. The changes range from new courses and minor fields intended to entice students into seats to new outreach efforts to attract students before they even enter college.

Most of the reported efforts align with the AHA’s recent initiatives to refocus attention on the pathway from the introductory course to the major. As Elizabeth Lehfeldt, vice president of the AHA’s Teaching Division, observed in the October 2016 issue of Perspectives on History, “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.”

History departments are not sitting idly by as their numbers decline.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, for instance, the department introduced new lower-division survey courses on subjects such as neoliberalism and the Holocaust designed to appeal to students. UCLA and the other departments contacted have also made adjustments to upper-level courses intended for majors—primarily providing more opportunities to interact with faculty and to create a smoother progression through the major.

A few departments also reported curricular changes. Jürgen Buchenau, chair of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, reported that the department recently dropped its foreign language requirement to accommodate transfers from majors that lack the requirement.

Five of the six departments reported some improvements, at least in history class enrollments. UCLA’s chair, Stephen Aron, reported that they have “seen a 13 percent upswing in enrollments” in the past year. Their perception of the trend in majors, however, was more ambiguous. The exception to this ambiguity can be found in recent reports from the department at Yale University, where history was the top reported major for entering students this past year.

The trend in degree conferrals remains a lagging indicator, as numbers only show graduation figures from four or more years ago. Given that, it may take another three or four years to see the effects of these new efforts.

Robert B. Townsend is the author of History’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise, 1880–1940 (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2013) and co-director of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators.

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