Published Date

February 1, 2005

From Retrieving the Master’s Degree from the Dustbin of History (2005)

Demographic Trends

The master’s degree is the fastest-growing degree in the United States, and the Department of Education expects that master’s degrees will continue to expand and flourish for at least another decade (see Figure 1).15 For example, between 1996 and 2002 (the last seven academic years with complete information available), the annual number of master’s degrees awarded in all fields rose by a total of 19 percent, versus increases of just 7 percent for associate’s degrees and 11 percent for bachelor’s degrees, and a slight decline in the annual number of doctorates. Master’s degrees in education rose the fastest of all, with an increase of 29 percent overall—including a striking 41 percent increase among blacks and 54 percent increase among Hispanics.16 Meanwhile, master’s degrees in history lagged far behind, with a 16 percent decrease in the number awarded during that period (see Table 1).17

Table 1

Should historians be worried about these trends? We think so. At the very least, the declining number of master’s degrees in history reflects a declining number of bachelor’s degrees in history, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States.18 (We also note a similar decline during the past decade in the number of master’s degrees among the social sciences most closely related to history, all of which continue to lose ground to such fields as business and education; see Figures 2A and 2B.) All the levels of history education are closely related, as segments of the same pipeline towards advanced training in the discipline (see Table 1 and Figure 3); in 2001, for example, 58 percent of all new history Ph.D.’s also had a master’s degree in history and 57 percent had a bachelor’s degree in the discipline.19 The future of the master’s degree is thus tied to the future of the undergraduate history major, which prompts some questions that cannot be answered within the confines of the present report: Why are not more students majoring in history? Are history majors declining in quality as well as quantity? How, exactly, does the declining number of new history B.A.’s relate to the declining number of master’s degrees? Are recent history undergraduates, as a group, less well prepared for graduate education at the master’s level than their predecessors—as several historians suggested to us in the course of this investigation?

Master’s degree programs “have always been more diverse than doctoral programs,” but the number of minority students earning master’s degrees began to increase dramatically in the early 1990s.20 Indeed, during the 1990s the annual number of African Americans earning master’s degrees rose by 132 percent while Hispanics saw an increase of 146 percent. More than ever, minority “groups that have not traditionally been well-represented in graduate education see a master’s as a good way to upgrade skills and get important credentials they need in careers.”21 At first glance, history seems to be part of this salutary trend: from 1995 to 2001, the percentage of minorities receiving master’s degrees in history rose from 14 percent to 17 percent (counting only U.S. citizens and permanent residents), a modest but still recognizable increase. In the same period, the share of history master’s degrees awarded to women also rose from 38 percent to 44 percent, again just counting U.S. citizens and permanent residents (see Table 2). Turning to the absolute number of degrees awarded between 1995 and 2001, however, we see a very different story: from year to year, minority students kept receiving about the same number of degrees, while the number of white students—especially white men—receiving master’s degrees in history declined precipitously (1,580 degrees for white men in 1994–95 as opposed to just 1,046 in 2000–01, a decrease of 34 percent in all). Any gains in diversity were the result of subtraction (losing white men and, to a lesser extent, white women) rather than addition (attracting more minorities to the discipline).

Figure 2A

Figure 2B

Figure 3

Another troubling measure of diversity among history graduate students comes from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, a periodic survey of demographic and financial aid patterns. In 1999–2000, the last time the survey was conducted, the population of graduate students enrolled in history master’s programs was actually less diverse than the population of students enrolled at the doctoral level, with the notable exception of Hispanics. In most other disciplines, the opposite was true (see Table 3). Historians need to ask why, and to consider the possible implications of the master’s degree as a barrier to entry against would-be historians from diverse backgrounds. According to one recent econometric analysis, “holding other factors constant, the representation of black faculty members would double if the black share of earned doctorates increased by 2.5 percent.”22 For now, we can only speculate about the ripple effects from a similar increase in the minority share of earned master’s degrees.

Table 2

Table 3Table 4

The number of male graduate students pursuing master’s degree in history still outpaces the number of female students, which places history at odds with most of the other academic disciplines (especially outside of the sciences). Nonetheless, the recent and dramatic decline in the percentage of male students at the master’s level deserves further investigation. So does the gap between the percentage of male students at the doctoral level (51 percent in 2000) and at the master’s level (58 percent in 2000), which is also atypical (see Tables 2 and 4). History graduate students also differ from their non-historian colleagues in another way: they are far more likely to be enrolled full-time, even at the master’s level (see Table 4).23 Is this a cause, an effect, or simply unrelated to the continuing gender disparity in history graduate education? Is the recent trend towards fewer male students part of an overdue correction in gender balance, which will soon re-balance at a roughly equal proportion of men and women pursuing advanced degrees in history?24 Why, for the time being, are master’s degree programs still relatively more attractive to men than women? Is it something about the curricula? Do men see the master’s degree as a more promising tool for career advancement than women (even though women are more likely than men to use their master’s degrees as public historians or even secondary school teachers)? Do men find it relatively easier to pursue a master’s degree than women, because of their jobs, their family responsibilities, or their personal finances? These are all plausible hypotheses, but we need more data to determine which (if any) are true. In particular, we need more information about the goals and aspirations of incoming graduate students and about the career paths they follow once they earn a master’s degree.

Graduate Programs

John Snell reported that “a total of 196 institutions in the nation awarded the master’s degree in history in 1959,” including about eighty that also offered a history Ph.D. By his estimate, one-fifth of the “typical” four-year colleges offered the degree and half of the “better ones.” The largest producer of history master’s degrees in 1958 was Columbia University with 87—and Columbia remains one of the top producers, though annual production had shrunk to a mere thirty degrees per annum by the late 1990s.25 But most history departments awarded just a few degrees a year: in 1958, a quarter of the institutions on Snell’s list awarded no more than two degrees; in 2000, about a fifth of the comparable institutions still awarded no more than two degrees (see Appendix 1).26

Snell predicted that “the number of master’s programs is likely to grow,” and he was right.27 According to the Department of Education, today about 340 institutions in the United States grant master’s degrees in history. Unfortunately, there are many quirks in how the federal government counts earned degrees—and history suffers from more than its share of the quirks because it falls between the cracks of the social sciences and the humanities, sometimes being counted as one, sometimes as the other. So how many institutions actually award master’s degrees in history? We set out to compile our own census, using eight different sources of information (Department of Education records, commercial guides to graduate education, and lists of graduate programs maintained by professional associations in the discipline),28 and reached a grand total of 435 institutions as of fall 2003 (see Appendix 1). Many of the additional institutions grant degrees in history education (often in programs that are jointly administered by a history department and a school or department of education), in the history of science, or in various aspects of public history, all of which are counted separately from “history” in the official statistics (see Notes). Significantly, the AHA was unaware that many of these programs even existed, which simply underscores the need for closer attention to the master’s degree on the part of the historical profession.

Table 5Table 5 summarizes the institutional and geographic distribution of history graduate programs at the master’s level. As in Snell’s day, research universities still house the majority of master’s degree programs, though comprehensive institutions—”Master’s Colleges and Universities” in the present Carnegie classification—make nearly as large a contribution. Every state in the country except Alaska has at least one master’s degree program for historians, and the master’s-granting institutions are distributed regionally in rough proportion to the U.S. population (though the Northeast has a small surplus of graduate programs). Public colleges and universities are significantly over-represented on the list, which likely reflects their disproportionate role in training secondary teachers and other placebound graduate students.29 (A pilot survey of master’s students conducted by the AHA in 2003 also pointed to the local draw of most graduate programs at the master’s level. Eighty-six percent of the respondents identified “geographic location” as a significant reason for selecting their graduate institution, 36 percent identified “convenient course scheduling,” and 56 percent identified “low tuition,” which also suggests a preference for public institutions.30

The distribution of graduate programs says very little about their content, however. As one expert recently noted, echoing Snell’s analysis from 1965, “many degrees go by the title of ‘master’s’ degrees, [but] they serve a range of audiences and embody a number of distinct purposes, to the extent that it might be asked whether it is either right or useful for them all to lead to awards carrying the same title.”31 The variations among the history programs are still striking. Consider, for example, the eight institutions in the immediate vicinity of Washington, D.C., that grant master’s degrees in history. At one extreme is the highly specialized program in the history of military medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, which admits just a single student each year. At the other extreme is the large history department at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, a public institution that graduates about forty students a year in four distinct master’s degree tracks: pre-doctoral, applied history, “enrichment,” and teaching. Between these extremes are three graduate programs with public history tracks, a specialized program in history and library science (at the University of Maryland in College Park), a handful of fairly traditional pre-doctoral programs, and one Ph.D.-centered history department that boldly claims on its web site “we do not offer an M.A. in History” (their own emphasis, not ours).32 And this is not a representative sample, in that none of the Washington-area schools focus on training high school teachers. Nor does it suggest the many different names that master’s degrees from history departments have attached to them: not just Master of Arts (the most common) and Master of Science, but also Master of Arts in Teaching, Master of Science in Teaching, Master of Education, Master of Arts in Education, and Master of Social Science, among others.

Originally, the Committee on the Master’s Degree intended to prepare a detailed typology of the master’s degree for historians, summarizing the various requirements of all the different graduate programs in the country and then presenting an ideal model (or set of models) based on the best (or most common) features that we could identify. Faced with the size and complexity of the master’s degree universe, and given the time and staffing restraints of the current investigation, we decided to postpone the inductive approach (though we still think it would be a useful approach for future researchers). Instead we adopted a deductive approach to the problem, asking a range of historians to describe the optimal content and outcomes for a history master’s degree, using their own deep understanding of the discipline and the profession as a starting point. The results of this very fruitful exercise are presented later, in the section devoted to “elements of mastery.” We also recommend that a centralized, voluntary listing of master’s-level programs be added to the AHA web site as a resource for historians, graduate students, administrators, employers, and other stakeholders. This would be the raw material for a thorough analysis of current practices in the master’s degree. At the very least, it would provide a national pool of benchmarks and best practices for historians in locally or regionally oriented master’s programs. It would also offer (potential) graduate students a ready way to compare different master’s programs, in their own region and across the country. Finally, it could be the first step towards a voluntary system of national standards for the master’s degree in history.

Next section: Destinations and Desires


  1. Projection of Education Statistics to 2013 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 2003), 77; Laura G. Knapp et al., Postsecondary Institutions in the United States: Fall 2002 and Degrees and Other Awards Conferred: 2001–02 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 2003), Table C. []
  2. Digest of Education Statistics, 2002 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 2003), Tables 246 and 268; Knapp, Postsecondary Institutions, Tables C and 21; Daniel Golden, “Quick Studies: Colleges Ease Way for Teachers to Get Advanced Degrees,” Wall Street Journal (September 22, 2003): A1. Golden’s analysis was based on degrees received in academic year 2000–01; the next year saw a slight decline in the number of minority students earning master’s degrees in education. []
  3. Robert B. Townsend, “History Takes a Tumble in Degrees Conferred: New Data Shows Field Lagging Behind,” Perspectives 41:7 (October 2003): 14–15, 59. []
  4. Townsend, “History Takes a Tumble,” 14–15; Townsend points out that there have been “notable improvements” in the status of the history B.A. since 1998, but the decline since the early 1990s has been even more notable. []
  5. See Table 6 and Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 2001 (Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, 2002), Appendix Table A-3. []
  6. Debra Stewart, “The Changing Landscape of Master’s Education: Implications for Penn State,” address delivered at Penn State University, October 3, 2001, 2. Also see Phaedra Brotherton, “Graduate degrees continue upward trend,” Black Issues in Higher Education 18:11 (July 19, 2001): 45–49, and Peter Syverson, “The New American Graduate Student, Part II,” CGS Communicator 35:5 (June 2002): 3, 7. []
  7. Page Melton, “What Does it Take to Get There?” Black Issues in Higher Education 20:10 (July 3, 2003): 30, quoting Peter Syverson from the Council of Graduate Schools. []
  8. Stephen Kulis, Heather Shaw, and Yinong Chong, “External Labor Markets and the Distribution of Black Scientists and Engineers in Academia,” Journal of Higher Education 71:2 (March/April 2000): 211. They add that “[t]his seemingly modest goal will not be easily attained, however, given current trends in doctoral production…” []
  9. Also see Syverson, “New American Graduate Student,” and Casanova et al., “The Master’s Degree,” 2. []
  10. A less optimistic scenario is that a continuing decline in the percentage of male students will eventually lead to the “feminization” of the historical profession, “which is frequently, if erroneously, assumed to signify a ‘decline in status’ … typically translat[ing] into lower salaries and prestige.” If so, “the historical profession must challenge such false associations and, more positively, emphasize the importance of the increased representation of previously (and still) underrepresented groups and their invigorating impact on the discipline.” Thomas Bender, Philip M. Katz, and Colin Palmer, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 31–32. []
  11. Here and elsewhere, we rely upon the National Center for Education Statistics count of master’s degrees awarded, which includes the degrees awarded in six subfields (as defined by the 1990 Classification of Instructional Programs): “History, General” (45.0801), “American (United States) History” (45.0802), “European History” (45.0803), “History and Philosophy of Science and Technology” (45.0804), “Public/Applied History and Archival Administration” (45.0805), and “History, Other” (45.0899). However, we believe that these numbers represent a significant undercount, because they do not include degrees in the history of science, history education (even when awarded through a history department), some varieties of public history (such as historic preservation), and degrees in cognate fields or interdisciplinary fields that may rely heavily upon historical methods and be taught by historians (area studies, ethnic studies, church history, and so on). []
  12. Perkins and Snell, Education of Historians, 86–87. []
  13. Perkins and Snell, Education of Historians, 87. Another snapshot of master’s-level education for historians in the 1950s can be found in J. F. Wellemeyer Jr., “Survey of United States Historians, 1952, and a Forecast,” American Historical Review 61:2 (January 1956): 339–52. []
  14. American Historical Association, Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations, and Historians, 2002–03 (Washington, D.C.: AHA, 2002); IPEDS Completions Survey for AY2000–01 (s.v. “History” and “History Teacher Education”), retrieved via the NSF WebCASPAR system on July 23, 2003; Peterson’s Graduate and Professional Programs, vol. 2, Graduate and Professional Programs in the Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, 37th ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Peterson’s, 2003); Educational Testing Service, Directory of Graduate Programs, vol. D, Directory of Graduate Programs in Arts & Humanities and Other Fields, 17th ed. (Princeton, N.J.: ETS, 1999); College Blue Book, vol. 3, Degrees Offered by College and Subject, 29th ed. (New York: MacMillan Reference, 2002); History of Science Society web site; National Council on Public History, Guide to Graduate Programs in Public History (Indianapolis: NCPH, 2002). []
  15. Casanova et al., “The Master’s Degree,” 1–5. On the intense localism of the market for public-school teachers (which affects both the selection of an undergraduate college and the location of a teacher’s first job), see Donald Boyd et al., “The Draw of Home: How Teachers’ Preferences for Proximity Disadvantage Urban Schools,” NBER Working Paper no. 9953 (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2003). []
  16. The survey is described in more detail later in this report. Appendix 2 is a copy of the survey instrument. []
  17. Peter T. Knight, “Growth, Standards and Quality: The Case for Coursework Master’s Degrees,” Quality in Higher Education 3:3 (1997): 213. []
  18. See the Georgetown University history department’s web site. In fact, Georgetown awards about four Master of Arts degrees in history each year, according to the Department of Education. []