Quick Thoughts on the History Major Report

By now, I suspect that many of my readers have either read Ben Schmidt’s report for the American Historical Association or glanced at summaries of it in Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle of Higher Education. Short version: since 2011-12 (“the first years for which students who saw the financial crisis in action could easily change their majors”), no college major has seen a greater proportional decline than history, down nearly one-third.

I can’t imagine this is news to any history professor. It’s certainly been a frequent topic of this blog — e.g., at the other end of this semester, I responded to some of Schmidt’s earlier analysis of the decline with economic and non-economic arguments for majoring in history. It was also the subject of a rather dismal session at last month’s meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, where department chair after department chair shared alarming statistics.

Historical share of history among college majors
Ben Schmidt/American Historical Association

At Bethel we’ve been working for at least six years now on revising curriculum and courses, explaining the value of our programs using statistics and alumni stories, using our massive role in general education to recruit new students, and even developing a new major that fuses humanities coursework with coding, design, data analysis, and other digital age skills. And there’s some evidence that it’s working. Our spring 2019 enrollments are the strongest they’ve been in several years, with our gateway Intro to History course actually exceeding its cap for the first time ever.

(I’d note that that course is also required of History minors — a population not covered in Schmidt’s study, but potentially of enormous importance for the future health of History departments at schools like Bethel.)

If your department is just starting to pay attention to this decline now, I don’t know what to tell you. But I’d certainly urge history faculty at schools like mine to not pay too much attention to the story that closes the IHE version of the report. Yes, History is again the top major for entering students at Yale, a recovery in enrollment that new chair Alan Mikhail chalked up to “rethinking course offerings, hiring new faculty members in specific growth areas, organizing campus recruiting events and, crucially, rethinking the actual major. Students are no longer required to take one set of courses, but rather pursue thematic tracks as part of a cohort.” Some of those strategies should be considered anywhere, but departments a fraction of Yale’s size and colleges possessing an even smaller fraction of my alma mater’s financial resources are not going to be able to hire new faculty or offer “thematic tracks.” And in any event, history — even at its nadir — has long been a popular major at Yale. That’s certainly not true of Bethel, or most of its peers in the religious/private college world.

A few other quick takeaways:

• It is discouraging to see that we’re back near the mid-80s trough of History enrollment, with our discipline accounting for only 5.3 degrees per 1,000 23-year olds in America. But Schmidt acknowledges that “Share can be a misleading metric.” I’d love to see 35,000 college students graduate with a History major, as they did in 2008, but History still accounted for nearly 25,000 graduates in 2017.

Change in degrees since 2011-12
Ben Schmidt/American Historical Association

• And focusing on percentage change since 2011-12 can be a bit misleading. For example: the fastest-growing major in that period is Exercise Science/Kinesiology. But at schools with a functioning History major, Exercise Science accounted for only a couple hundred more graduates in 2016-2017 than did History.

Admittedly, hundreds of colleges offering History don’t offer Exercise Science, and I’m sure the reverse is true. (By the way, this is all based on my own quick work in IPEDS; I didn’t include second majors, since I wasn’t sure if Schmidt had.) But my point is that History is doing — proportionally — as poorly as it has in half a century, and it’s still — in absolute terms — a relatively common major. I’m just not sure it has remained popular enough to justify staffing levels that may have been set 10-20 years ago.

• Finally, what stood out most to me in Schmidt’s chart of proportional growth and decline is that I had to look hard to find Business. While it’s still the most popular major in the country, since 2011-12 Business has been on par with Music and Religion/Theology: in the low single digits of growth. I wonder if that major is finally reaching the saturation level that I speculated about last fall…