Retrieving the Master's Degree from the Dustbin of History
II. The History Master's Degree: A Snapshot in Statistics
The master's degree is the fastest-growing degree in the United States, and the Department of Education expects that master's degrees will continue to expand and flourish for at least another decade (see Figure 1).15 For example, between 1996 and 2002 (the last seven academic years with complete information available), the annual number of master's degrees awarded in all fields rose by a total of 19 percent, versus increases of just 7 percent for associate's degrees and 11 percent for bachelor's degrees, and a slight decline in the annual number of doctorates. Master's degrees in education rose the fastest of all, with an increase of 29 percent overallincluding a striking 41 percent increase among blacks and 54 percent increase among Hispanics.16 Meanwhile, master's degrees in history lagged far behind, with a 16 percent decrease in the number awarded during that period (see Table 1).17
Should historians be worried about these trends? We think so. At the very least, the declining number of master's degrees in history reflects a declining number of bachelor's degrees in history, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of all bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States.18 (We also note a similar decline during the past decade in the number of master's degrees among the social sciences most closely related to history, all of which continue to lose ground to such fields as business and education; see Figures 2A and 2B.) All the levels of history education are closely related, as segments of the same pipeline towards advanced training in the discipline (see Table 1 and Figure 3); in 2001, for example, 58 percent of all new history Ph.D.'s also had a master's degree in history and 57 percent had a bachelor's degree in the discipline.19 The future of the master's degree is thus tied to the future of the undergraduate history major, which prompts some questions that cannot be answered within the confines of the present report: Why are not more students majoring in history? Are history majors declining in quality as well as quantity? How, exactly, does the declining number of new history B.A.'s relate to the declining number of master's degrees? Are recent history undergraduates, as a group, less well prepared for graduate education at the master's level than their predecessorsas several historians suggested to us in the course of this investigation?
Master's degree programs "have always been more diverse than doctoral programs," but the number of minority students earning master's degrees began to increase dramatically in the early 1990s.20 Indeed, during the 1990s the annual number of African Americans earning master's degrees rose by 132 percent while Hispanics saw an increase of 146 percent. More than ever, minority "groups that have not traditionally been well-represented in graduate education see a master's as a good way to upgrade skills and get important credentials they need in careers."21 At first glance, history seems to be part of this salutary trend: from 1995 to 2001, the percentage of minorities receiving master's degrees in history rose from 14 percent to 17 percent (counting only U.S. citizens and permanent residents), a modest but still recognizable increase. In the same period, the share of history master's degrees awarded to women also rose from 38 percent to 44 percent, again just counting U.S. citizens and permanent residents (see Table 2). Turning to the absolute number of degrees awarded between 1995 and 2001, however, we see a very different story: from year to year, minority students kept receiving about the same number of degrees, while the number of white studentsespecially white menreceiving master's degrees in history declined precipitously (1,580 degrees for white men in 1994–95 as opposed to just 1,046 in 2000–01, a decrease of 34 percent in all). Any gains in diversity were the result of subtraction (losing white men and, to a lesser extent, white women) rather than addition (attracting more minorities to the discipline).
Another troubling measure of diversity among history graduate students comes from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, a periodic survey of demographic and financial aid patterns. In 1999–2000, the last time the survey was conducted, the population of graduate students enrolled in history master's programs was actually less diverse than the population of students enrolled at the doctoral level, with the notable exception of Hispanics. In most other disciplines, the opposite was true (see Table 3). Historians need to ask why, and to consider the possible implications of the master's degree as a barrier to entry against would-be historians from diverse backgrounds. According to one recent econometric analysis, "holding other factors constant, the representation of black faculty members would double if the black share of earned doctorates increased by 2.5 percent."22 For now, we can only speculate about the ripple effects from a similar increase in the minority share of earned master's degrees.
The number of male graduate students pursuing master's degree in history still outpaces the number of female students, which places history at odds with most of the other academic disciplines (especially outside of the sciences). Nonetheless, the recent and dramatic decline in the percentage of male students at the master's level deserves further investigation. So does the gap between the percentage of male students at the doctoral level (51 percent in 2000) and at the master's level (58 percent in 2000), which is also atypical (see Tables 2 and 4). History graduate students also differ from their non-historian colleagues in another way: they are far more likely to be enrolled full-time, even at the master's level (see Table 4).23 Is this a cause, an effect, or simply unrelated to the continuing gender disparity in history graduate education? Is the recent trend towards fewer male students part of an overdue correction in gender balance, which will soon re-balance at a roughly equal proportion of men and women pursuing advanced degrees in history?24 Why, for the time being, are master's degree programs still relatively more attractive to men than women? Is it something about the curricula? Do men see the master's degree as a more promising tool for career advancement than women (even though women are more likely than men to use their master's degrees as public historians or even secondary school teachers)? Do men find it relatively easier to pursue a master's degree than women, because of their jobs, their family responsibilities, or their personal finances? These are all plausible hypotheses, but we need more data to determine which (if any) are true. In particular, we need more information about the goals and aspirations of incoming graduate students and about the career paths they follow once they earn a master's degree.
John Snell reported that "a total of 196 institutions in the nation awarded the master's degree in history in 1959," including about eighty that also offered a history Ph.D. By his estimate, one-fifth of the "typical" four-year colleges offered the degree and half of the "better ones." The largest producer of history master's degrees in 1958 was Columbia University with 87and Columbia remains one of the top producers, though annual production had shrunk to a mere thirty degrees per annum by the late 1990s.25 But most history departments awarded just a few degrees a year: in 1958, a quarter of the institutions on Snell's list awarded no more than two degrees; in 2000, about a fifth of the comparable institutions still awarded no more than two degrees (see Appendix 1).26
Snell predicted that "the number of master's programs is likely to grow," and he was right.27 According to the Department of Education, today about 340 institutions in the United States grant master's degrees in history. Unfortunately, there are many quirks in how the federal government counts earned degreesand history suffers from more than its share of the quirks because it falls between the cracks of the social sciences and the humanities, sometimes being counted as one, sometimes as the other. So how many institutions actually award master's degrees in history? We set out to compile our own census, using eight different sources of information (Department of Education records, commercial guides to graduate education, and lists of graduate programs maintained by professional associations in the discipline),28 and reached a grand total of 435 institutions as of fall 2003 (see Appendix 1). Many of the additional institutions grant degrees in history education (often in programs that are jointly administered by a history department and a school or department of education), in the history of science, or in various aspects of public history, all of which are counted separately from "history" in the official statistics (see Notes). Significantly, the AHA was unaware that many of these programs even existed, which simply underscores the need for closer attention to the master's degree on the part of the historical profession.
Table 5 summarizes the institutional and geographic distribution of history graduate programs at the master's level. As in Snell's day, research universities still house the majority of master's degree programs, though comprehensive institutions"Master's Colleges and Universities" in the present Carnegie classificationmake nearly as large a contribution. Every state in the country except Alaska has at least one master's degree program for historians, and the master's-granting institutions are distributed regionally in rough proportion to the U.S. population (though the Northeast has a small surplus of graduate programs). Public colleges and universities are significantly over-represented on the list, which likely reflects their disproportionate role in training secondary teachers and other placebound graduate students.29 (A pilot survey of master's students conducted by the AHA in 2003 also pointed to the local draw of most graduate programs at the master's level. Eighty-six percent of the respondents identified "geographic location" as a significant reason for selecting their graduate institution, 36 percent identified "convenient course scheduling," and 56 percent identified "low tuition," which also suggests a preference for public institutions.30
The distribution of graduate programs says very little about their content, however. As one expert recently noted, echoing Snell's analysis from 1965, "many degrees go by the title of ‘master's' degrees, [but] they serve a range of audiences and embody a number of distinct purposes, to the extent that it might be asked whether it is either right or useful for them all to lead to awards carrying the same title."31 The variations among the history programs are still striking. Consider, for example, the eight institutions in the immediate vicinity of Washington, D.C., that grant master's degrees in history. At one extreme is the highly specialized program in the history of military medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, which admits just a single student each year. At the other extreme is the large history department at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, a public institution that graduates about forty students a year in four distinct master's degree tracks: pre-doctoral, applied history, "enrichment," and teaching. Between these extremes are three graduate programs with public history tracks, a specialized program in history and library science (at the University of Maryland in College Park), a handful of fairly traditional pre-doctoral programs, and one Ph.D.-centered history department that boldly claims on its web site "we do not offer an M.A. in History" (their own emphasis, not ours).32 And this is not a representative sample, in that none of the Washington-area schools focus on training high school teachers. Nor does it suggest the many different names that master's degrees from history departments have attached to them: not just Master of Arts (the most common) and Master of Science, but also Master of Arts in Teaching, Master of Science in Teaching, Master of Education, Master of Arts in Education, and Master of Social Science, among others.
Originally, the Committee on the Master's
Degree intended to prepare a detailed typology of the master's
degree for historians, summarizing the various requirements of
all the different graduate programs in the country
and then presenting an ideal model (or set of models) based on
the best (or most common) features that we could identify. Faced
with the size and complexity
of the master's degree universe, and given the time and
staffing restraints of the current investigation, we decided
to postpone the inductive approach
(though we still think it would be a useful approach for future
researchers). Instead we adopted a deductive approach to the
problem, asking a range of historians
to describe the optimal content and outcomes for a history master's
degree, using their own deep understanding of the discipline
and the profession as
a starting point. The results of this very fruitful exercise
are presented later, in the section devoted to "elements
of mastery." We also
recommend that a centralized, voluntary listing of master's-level
programs be added to the AHA web site as a resource for historians,
administrators, employers, and other stakeholders. This would
be the raw material for a thorough analysis of current practices
in the master's degree.
At the very least, it would provide a national pool of benchmarks
and best practices for historians in locally or regionally oriented
It would also offer (potential) graduate students a ready way
to compare different master's programs, in their own region
and across the country. Finally, it could be the first step towards
a voluntary system of national standards
for the master's degree in history.
Last Updated: May 11, 2007