Big Slide for the History BA?

I don’t think anyone will be surprised to hear that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students earning bachelor’s degrees in history went down again. The latest data covers the academic year ending in 2014, so many teachers and administrators have already noticed fewer history majors in their departments. The downward trend is in its third year, so an uptick would have been a pleasant surprise and the downturn is no surprise at all.

But the magnitude of the decline is a shock. If the numbers are right and if I’ve run them correctly, history departments graduated roughly 3,400 fewer students in AY 2013-14 than in the previous year. That’s a 9 percent decline, and it’s surprising because no year-over-year change in the last 15 years—up or down—has come close to being this large. And if we look at the number of history undergrad degrees as a percentage of all bachelors degrees, we see a slide that started in 2007 and has continued into 2014–a year in which history majors claimed only 1.73 percent of all bachelor’s degrees.

Source: NCES, Integrated Post-Secondary Data System. Downloaded November 15, 2015. Feedback and corrections are welcome! Since this is a blog that I maintain as a diversion in my spare time, please use with caution…

In past years, when I dove into this data set (here and here), I was always able to find groups of students or groupings of institutions that bucked the trend. Master’s colleges and universities, for example, had a multiyear upward movement even as the research universities with “very high research activity” saw their numbers drop. And even as most racial and ethnic groups turned away from the history major, the Latino student population was taking it up in increasing numbers. Schools that had a professional focus (as opposed to an arts and sciences focus) were adding history majors, which isn’t what you might expect. All this was interesting enough to distract me from the overall downslope and allowed me to speculate that new growth would come from unexpected areas. There was always a reason to think that perhaps the history major was going through a shift, not necessarily an across-the-board decline.

But in this most recent year, every grouping of institutions and students saw their number of history bachelors drop. I have looked for upward ticks in groups defined by Carnegie type, instructional profile, level of tuition, student profile, selectivity, and so on, and have so far found no convincing grouping that bucked the trend this year.

In all, 747 institutions that offer a history bachelor’s graduated fewer history majors in AY 2013-14 than in AY 2012-13, and 572 institutions added students or stayed level. Seventy-one percent of research universities saw a drop in the number of bachelor’s in history (if we look only at those considered to have “very high research activity” the number rises to 81 percent). Over half of the master’s colleges and universities (55 percent) saw a decline, and so on.

There don’t seem to be exceptions to the downward turn this year, but there are still a few positive long-term trends. To find these, I compared the total number of graduates from 2005-2009 to the total from 2010-2014 and lined up the results on a box plot.

The dashboard below plots institutions by the percent change between the two most recent five-year intervals (percent change from the total number of graduates 2005-2009 to the total for 2010-2014) and shows medians, quartiles, and outliers, for people who like that sort of thing. I like this sort of thing because we can see different medians and variability for different institutional groupings. It’s a more holistic look at the data than the line graphs, and we can see more clearly what’s going on in each group. The arts and sciences institutions for example, cluster more closely around their medians than other categories, and the median is lower.  In the dashboard, the institutions can be grouped by Carnegie type, instructional profile, tuition, etc., and we can see what appears to be positive trends (and I say this tentatively) in institutions that are less selective, cheaper, and professions-oriented.

Does this recent big drop mean anything? I’ve heard it said that enrollment is what counts, and as long as history classes are full of warm bodies, their major doesn’t matter. I know that some departments are losing majors but gaining minors. However, as a somewhat disinterested party living by and large outside academia, my selfish concern is as follows: What if fewer history majors means fewer upper-level courses? And if there are fewer upper level courses, will we see more temptation to fill teaching slots with cheap labor? Many of these inexpensive teachers will do a good job, but they won’t do much research. So I’ll have fewer history books with really new ideas to read. Less selfishly, I worry that having a smaller body of new research means fewer opportunities to challenge the prevailing idea that history is a simple process of uncovering absolute truths and utterly knowable facts and arranging them in chronological order. I’m someone who believes that when we accept that idea of history we tend to make bad choices, especially in public and foreign policy.

These worries are a bit far removed from the 9 percent drop that occasioned them, and could simply be the result of overthinking, or a justification of the fact that I like historians and want to see more of them in the world. Next month I’ll get a chance to look at the new data on history PhDs when the Survey of Earned Doctorates comes out and I don’t think I’ll be disappointed—fewer history BAs not withstanding, it seems like there will always be more and more history PhDs.

One thought on “Big Slide for the History BA?

  1. Hi Allen,
    Thanks for compiling this data. The graphics look great and I like how you can adjust the settings for different results. It is useful for everyone in the profession to know about this, even if it is alarming and sad to see. Numerous studies indicate that contingent faculty (non-tenured or not on the tenure-track) are around 70-75% of all college instructors; adjuncts are about 50%. This is a major reversal since the 1970s when about 75% of instructors were tenured or tenure-track. I fear that with the data you present, colleges will be even more reluctant to open up desperately-needed tenure-track lines.
    – Steve

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