According 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.