Good news from the American Historical Association:
Ask any department chair, and most faculty, what the most vexing data point during the academic year is and the most likely answer would be “enrollments.” In a data-obsessed age when it seems everything is tracked and analyzed, few data points matter as much in higher education as enrollments. For many institutions, department funding is tied directly to enrollment numbers. Courses that don’t meet minimum enrollment requirements are canceled, snarling the distribution of teaching responsibilities among faculty and narrowing the intellectual range in the curriculum. Fluctuations in enrollments and majors—a close relative of enrollments data—are cited as reasons to create or cancel tenure lines. A lot is riding on what academic slang calls “butts in seats.”
For the past several years, the AHA has conducted an optional annual enrollments survey of history departments. The inquiry, which asks participating departments to report enrollments for each of the previous four years, is the only available source that collects history-specific enrollments data from individual institutions. While not statistically representative of higher education as a whole, these data capture broad national trends. With the data’s limitations firmly in mind, we’re parsing this year’s survey in the context of wider efforts across the discipline and across the landscape of higher education to better articulate the value of studying history and the humanities.
Undergraduate enrollment in history courses remained relatively stable in 2018–19, with a total decline of 1.1 percent from 2017–18 levels across the 104 US institutions that provided data to the AHA (Fig. 1). When responses from two Canadian institutions are included, the dip was just 0.8 percent overall. The four-year trends reported in our 2019 survey show a decline of 3.3 percent since the 2015–16 academic year. The modest change from 2017–18 reinforces the flattening trend we observed last year and is slightly lower than national declines in total undergraduate enrollment, according to recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Our enrollment survey corroborates a sense reported at many departments that the years of free-falling undergraduate enrollment may be behind them.
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