The History Major at Christian Colleges

Last week I shared some quick thoughts on Ben Schmidt’s much-read report on the state of the history major. Using graduation numbers from the IPEDS database, he found that history has suffered a greater proportional decline since the Great Recession than any other major: in 2016-17, there were one-third fewer history grads than there were in 2011-12. Naturally, I was curious whether this national trend was mirrored in the smaller subset of educational institutions that I inhabit: Christian colleges and universities.

So I dug into the same IPEDS data for two overlapping groups of schools: the 121 American governing members and collaborative partners of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU — more broadly evangelical), and the 101 members of the Lilly National Network (including 32 with CCCU ties, but also Catholic and mainline Protestant institutions). Here’s what I found has happened to History in those two networks: (I also included three of the majors that Schmidt found to have grown fastest since 2011-12)

% Change in History,
% Change in Exercise Science, 2011-2017 % Change in Computer Science, 2011-2017 % Change in Engineering, 2011-2017
CCCU -22.8% +54.7% +41.5% +100.0%
CCCU minus Lilly members -15.8% +61.1% +28.7% +116.0%
Lilly Network -36.1% +67.4% +85.3% +59.8%
Lilly Network minus CCCU members -37.3% +76.8% +93.7% +53.1%

It’s tempting to look at this and think that the more evangelical CCCU is doing better than the ecumenical Lilly Network at sustaining history majors, belying some of my earlier angst about doing history in an evangelical setting. But…

SAC - Villanova
The St. Augustine Center for the Liberal Arts – Villanova University

I think what we’re really seeing is that the Lilly schools had more history majors to lose in the first place. That’s especially true of some Jesuit and other Catholic universities. These five, for example, have all suffered at least a 50% decline since 2011-12:

History Graduates, 2006-07 History Graduates, 2011-12 History Graduates, 2016-17
Loyola Marymount 39 47 17
Univ. of Scranton 52 54 21
Villanova 52 38 17
St. John’s (NY) 37 45 21
Xavier 46 30 15

Yet even after these losses, those departments are still graduating 3-4 times as many students as the median non-Lilly CCCU history department. And Lilly departments overall continue to be at least twice as big as non-Lilly CCCU equivalents.

Median History Graduates,
Median History Graduates,
Median History Graduates,
CCCU minus Lilly members 5 5 4
Lilly Network minus CCCU members 15 14.5 10.5
Members of both networks 13 13 9

While my sense is that all CCCU members are expected to have a broad arts and sciences curriculum, I suspect that the vast majority of these institutions have never had an especially robust history presence — even in the relatively flush time before the Great Recession. Meanwhile, the 32 schools that have dual membership more closely resemble their Lilly than their CCCU peers — in the proportional decline since 2011-12 and in the relative strength that History still has on those campuses compared to most CCCU schools. Here’s how a few of them — including mine — have fared in this period:

History Graduates, 2006-07 History Graduates, 2011-12 History Graduates, 2016-17
Taylor 12 14 1
Calvin 33 16 10
Gordon 32 27 19
Seattle Pacific 23 23 19
Bethel (MN) 11 15 13
Wheaton 15 27 24

In general, the story here seems to be that those CCCU schools that had once had sizable numbers of History majors — more akin to what you’d see at a Jesuit university or Lutheran liberal arts college — have started to come back to the CCCU pack, while their institutions have invested more and more heavily in programs like exercise science, computer science, and, especially, engineering.

(There were exactly twice as many engineering grads in the CCCU in 2016-17 as in 2011-12: 1082 vs. 541. And I’m sure my institution isn’t the only Christian college counting on more rapid growth in that area in the next few years.)

But it’s also clear that it’s not a universal story of decline. Across the whole CCCU, I found over forty schools that actually saw more history graduates in 2016-17 than five years before. Most were quite modest improvements, but it’s perhaps notable that Regent went from 1 to 14 and Point Loma Nazarene from 3 to 12, and that College of the Ozarks and Huntington both jumped from 5 to 11. At Bethel we’ve generally been steady in the low double digits after peaking in the low 20s around 2007-09: never as many as we might like, but rarely dipping below 10 (not counting our Social Studies Education students, some of whom only declare a History minor rather than a second major).

Of course, this could also be statistical noise. It’s one thing to use an aggregation of 100+ schools to discern trends from one year to another. But if you pick any single institution and compare two data points, you might get weird results. You could pick a different starting point for us than 2011-12 and make it look like we’ve grown over five years. If we did this exercise with 2017-18 graduates, we’d move to the decline category… but then this year’s graduating class should be right back where it was two years ago. (And for the reasons I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m hopeful that we’ve actually taken some strategic steps that should guarantee stability, and perhaps even growth.)

Finally, note that I went back five years on the last few tables. I was curious to see if the decline Schmidt detected had started even before the Great Recession. (He picked 2011-12 precisely because those would have been “the first years for which students who saw the financial crisis in action could easily change their majors.”) But between 2006-07 and 2011-12, CCCU history departments saw only a 1.7% dip in majors graduating (with exceptions: see the Calvin College number above). The Lilly decline for that period was higher, but still just over 5%.

It seems clear that the real collapse came after the Great Recession, which seems to support Schmidt’s larger point (made this summer in an Atlantic article) that history and related disciplines are facing an economic “crisis of confidence” among prospective students and families who — mistakenly — don’t think such collegiate study is good preparation for a career.

Here’s my full spreadsheet, if you want to look for a particular institution or play around with the data.

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