And Now, Some Sobering News…

From the AHA’s Perspectives newsletter. I would add another reason: when you love history as such, as all history professors do, you simply can’t understand why others might not, and it’s difficult to convince them of the subject’s value.

The Decline in History Majors: What Is to Be Done?
by Julia Brookins, May 2016

As the March 2016 issue of Perspectives on History reported, the number of people earning a US bachelor’s degree in history dropped sharply in 2014 from a year earlier and may continue to fall over the next few years. We solicited reports and impressions from department chairs and talked to history faculty members at different types of colleges and universities, asking how things looked in their programs and what the implications for other history departments might be….

[Some reasons include:]

Gender breakdown of the undergraduate student population: Nationally, there are three male history majors for every two female history majors. Declining proportions of male college students will continue to affect program cohorts negatively unless more women choose history.

The history program’s reputation for rigor: This may be a factor in certain campus climates, but departments must think carefully about how prospective students encounter the expectations that their program has for its graduates. Rigor and lack of student success are not the same things. Departments may need to embrace changes that reinforce learning and be able to provide good evidence to entering students that the history program is structured to support their academic achievement.

Heavy reliance on required introductory courses to recruit students: Conventional wisdom among history faculty members has been that introductory courses are the best recruitment tool for attracting history majors. As college-going has undergone big changes over the past few decades, however, the students in the lower-division campus courses are a smaller pool to draw from. Today, more students who enter a bachelor’s degree program have previous course credits from community colleges, AP courses, dual or concurrent enrollment courses, and other sources. Departments that expand their recruitment beyond on-campus introductory courses may be able to find more of today’s college students. Direct communication and coordination between faculty peers at two-year and four-year academic units becomes more important to discovering and launching students who want to major in history.

Creation of new majors: As choices for students expand, history departments that actively engage with faculty colleagues in new and existing programs may be more likely to retain students. Facilitating double majors and developing or promoting a history minor goes along with this approach.

Changes to general education curricula: History faculty members and department chairs with whom I spoke agreed that changes to history’s place within general education have played a role in the number of undergraduate majors. Students can now often navigate the breadth of institutional offerings and choose among baskets of courses. While there are risks as designated distribution requirements disappear, there are also tremendous opportunities for more engaged classrooms and for moving introductory history courses beyond surveys of broad topical areas toward an emphasis on effectively training undergraduates in core concepts and competencies of historical thinking.

Declining career prospects in fields traditionally associated with history: Some states implemented hiring and/or salary freezes for K–12 teachers in the wake of budget crises precipitated by the recession. The past few years have also seen a significant constriction of early-career employment opportunities in the legal profession. If law school no longer seems like a good bet, the history curriculum that was great preparation for that path might lose its attraction for some students.3 Historians need to practice communicating that history skills are foundational for many career paths and be able to outline that range of occupations to undergraduates.

Regional demography: The number of traditional college-age or younger residents of certain metropolitan areas and entire states has fallen, while it has increased in other regions. Overall enrollments may be down at institutions in aging regions, and faculty may need to take different steps to reach students.