What Happened to the History Major?

9288b-historymajorAccording to a recent report from the American Historical Association, the undergraduate history major is in steep decline.  In the last six years, the number of history majors in American colleges and universities has dropped by about 33%, more than any other discipline.   And this is in a period when university enrollments have grown.  Here is a taste of the report:

Optimists may look at the last year’s line in these charts and note that the rate of decline appears to have slowed. It is reasonable to hope that the trends of the last decade will eventually bottom out, perhaps even in the next year or two. At this point, though, it would take several unprecedented years of growth in history majors to return to mid-2000s numbers; departments should not expect a rapid rebound. While there are anecdotal accounts of students seeking out history in the current political climate, leading indicators of student interest are at best mixed; most notably, the AHA’s survey of course enrollments in a number of departments for the 2016–17 academic year found continued declines in credit hours. (Editor’s note: results of the AHA enrollments survey for 2017–18 will be published in the January issue of Perspectives.)

Those enrollment numbers suggest one possible long-term trend: that history departments will become more oriented toward introductory-level courses. Although I am not aware of good data on credit hours for the critical period 2010–12, it seems that the declines in enrollments since then may have been gentler than the drops in majors. Students still take history courses—but more often, apparently, as electives, as requirements for other majors, or as general education requirements. If major numbers do not recover, each of these areas will become more important. One common plan, for joint or hybrid majors, is peripherally tracked in the IPEDS data through reporting of second majors. These numbers capture students who major in fields like “Political science and history” where any other field might occupy the first position. They do not seem to offer great consolation; history’s share of second majors mirrors its overall trend in the last decade.

Ultimately, whether through majors or course enrollments, the long-term state of the discipline will rest on how it adapts to a cohort of students—and their parents—who are much less receptive to arguments for the liberal arts than previous generations have been. Many departments and organizations have worked out useful ways to articulate the purpose of the major. These are undoubtedly helping attract and retain students today. (The institutions that made up AHA’s Tuning project, an initiative to this end, are among those on the front lines; the first set of Tuning departments reported marginally better enrollments from 2014 to 2017, though not so strongly that I am confident in their statistical significance.) As the 2008 crisis moves farther into the past, we should attempt to identify departments that have had the most notable successes.

Read the entire report here.

No commentary yet.  I need to think through this report a bit more.

One thought on “What Happened to the History Major?

  1. Recall for a moment that the 20th century upsurge in the frequency with which people had a full complement of secondary schooling hit a wall around 1965. About 73% receive diplomas and that hasn’t changed in 50+ years. Recall also that the Johnson Administration persuaded Congress to create a mass of subsidy programs to increase the prevalence of post-secondary schooling that very year. These would have come online in 1966 or thereabouts. There was also some modest enhancement of people’s propensity to remain in college during 1967, 1968, and 1969: the VietNam War was going sideways and student deferments (scrapped at the end of 1969) allowed people to delay their military service. The cohort matriculating in the late summer of 1967 would be graduating in 1971.

    In 1971, about 400,000 baccalaureate degrees were awarded in academic subjects. In 2015, it was north of 600,000. There has been little or no secular increase in the size of the annual birth cohort in this country over the last 70 years – it bounces around a set point of 4 million. You do have more entrants into the stream from immigration, but that shouldn’t have given you more than a 20% boost in degrees awarded, if that. The raw devotion of manpower to the teaching and learning of academic subjects hasn’t declined. There’s no grand reason for it to increase. Academics is interesting, but the subjects do not map to any particular occupation and only the natural sciences, mathematics, computer science, and economics provide you with much of a leg up above and beyond the job-market signal you get from a generic baccalaureate degree. Recall that as late as 1965, British universities captured perhaps 4% of each age cohort (who would have been studying academic subjects, by and large; medicine, veterinary medicine, and the ministry were the only sorts of professional training common in British universities at that time). A society can prosper with only modest quanta of post-secondary schooling in academics.

    I should not that the American history faculty pretty much deserve what they’re getting from the market: it has decayed into a gross apologetical (or anti-apologetical) enterprise. When people like Sally Deutch start disappearing from American history faculties, perhaps you’ll have earned more students.


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