AHA Data Indicates Surge in Number of History Majors and Continued Growth in Undergraduate Enrollments

Robert B. Townsend, November 2000

History departments at four-year colleges and universities enjoyed a sudden resurgence in the number of history majors last year, rising 4.3 percent after declining gradually for the previous five years. Meanwhile the number of courses and total undergraduate enrollments in history courses continued to increase, as they have throughout the 1990s.

The increase in history majors—reversing annual declines of between 0.5 and 1.5 percent since 1995—was reported by 520 U.S. departments that have appeared regularly in the AHA Directory of History Departments and Organizations since 1990 (Figure 1).1 As the data in the table reflects, the number of history majors is quite important, as the trends in majors closely correspond to the trends in the overall number of bachelor's degrees in history conferred. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show a parallel drop in the production of history BAs between 1992 and 1998 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) after a large increase between 1986 and 1992.2

Figure 1

The improvement in the number of history majors last year was widespread, occurring at public and private institutions, and at liberal arts and doctoral programs alike. Private universities not affiliated with a religious organization enjoyed the largest increase, up over 10 percent from the previous year, while in public colleges and universities the number of history majors rose a more modest 3.8 percent. Liberal arts colleges and departments granting the BA reported a modest 1.7 percent increase, while departments terminating with masters and doctoral degrees reported that the number of history majors rose over 5 percent. When broken down by region, departments in the Northeast reported the highest level of growth (over 8.6 percent), followed by departments in the West with 6 percent growth. The Southeast reported the smallest growth at just 0.1 percent.

These patterns are intriguing because the regional data runs counter to trends of the past 15 years. While the number of history majors was shooting up over 60 percent between 1986 and 1991, departments in the Northeast experienced the slowest growth of any region. And as the number of majors began to fall in the mid-1990s, the decline became evident first in the Northeast where it was also more rapid than in other regions. As a result, the number of history majors at colleges and universities in the Northeast had fallen below the levels of 10 years ago (Figure 2). So last year's increase is very good news indeed.

Figure 2

Similarly, private colleges and universities lagged behind the growth in the number of history majors at public institutions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then led the declines over the past five years. However, they did not enjoy the same level of resurgence as institutions located in the Northeast. So while public institutions now report they have 15 percent more history majors than they did 10 years ago, private colleges and universities report a decline in the number of history majors of almost 4 percent from a decade ago. While the news is mixed, it should be noted that public institutions have more than double the number of history majors—58,318 at public institutions as compared to 22,851 in private colleges and universities.

Undergraduate Courses and Enrollment Rise

Despite the declines in the number of majors, history departments continued to report that they were offering more undergraduate courses and that undergraduate enrollments were rising as they had been since 1989, when the AHA began conducting annual surveys on these questions.2

According to the surveys, student enrollments in history courses at colleges and universities rose almost 20 percent between 1989 and 1999 while the number of course offerings rose by 23 percent over the same span. The number of history courses and enrollments in history courses that have been tabulated biennially rose rose in every survey since the Association began collecting the data 10 years ago.

The study of areas outside of the United States and Europe enjoyed some of the largest growth, rising by 35 percent since the 1989 survey, while enrollments rose by almost 56 percent. Growth in the U.S. history courses and enrollments lagged only slightly, as the number of courses increased by 26.5 percent, though enrollments grew by only 22 percent over the same time span. Only the study of European history seems to have suffered over the past decade, as departments reported that the number of courses declined 4.4 percent and enrollments fell slightly faster, declining 6.9 percent.

The data in the surveys also demonstrate the trend away from nations and regions as a focus of study, as the broad category of "other courses," originally intended to encompass thematic courses, rose almost 62 percent over the past decade. Enrollments in this category rose a slightly more modest 42 percent over the same period.

Asian history was the largest field outside the U.S. and Europe with an average of almost six courses taught and 155 students enrolled per year at each department. Latin American history courses average 3.9 classes per year with 127 students enrolled, and African history averages 3.2 classes per department with 89 enrolled. By contrast, the average number of U.S. history courses taught is almost 23 per department with 1,235 enrolled, and European history averages nearly 17 courses with 711 enrolled.

As reflected in Tables 1 and 2, there is wide variation in the number of history courses and enrollments in them, depending on the highest degree and institutional control of the college or university. Public colleges and universities offer almost twice as many courses and more than three times the number of students enrolled as their private counterparts. Similarly, PhD-granting history departments have more than twice as many courses and more than three times the number of students enrolled in classes as BA-granting programs.

It is also notable that, even within the very general and region-based field categories in the survey, different types of departments and institutions demonstrate significant variations in their course offerings and enrollments. Most notably, U.S. history courses comprise a larger portion of the history curriculum and history enrollments at both public institutions and comprehensive MA-granting departments (Tables 1 and 2), where they account for about 5 percent more of the classes taught and about 10 percent more of the student enrollments. It is also notable that the number and proportion of European history courses and students enrolled in European history courses at PhD programs are significantly higher than at liberal arts and comprehensive programs.

The large average class sizes are also rather surprising. It is no surprise that PhD programs, which offer a high number of survey courses, have a large average course size, ranging from almost 69 students per class in U.S. history courses to an average of 29 students in African history courses. But even departments at liberal arts colleges reported fairly large average class sizes, ranging from 44 in "Other" courses (which include everything from Western Civ to history of science and historiography courses) to 23.7 in Asian history courses.

—Robert Townsend is assistant director at the AHA for publications, information systems, and research, and editor of Perspectives.

Notes

1. Data tabulated from information supplied to the Directory of History Departments and Organizations in the 1989–90 to the forthcoming 2000–01 editions. Departments supply the number of history majors in the department the previous year for inclusion in the Directory. The data is tabulated from 520 U.S. history departments listed continuously over that period. Where a department failed to supply the information for a year, staff used the average of the two adjoining years for continuity. Tabulation for departments in the 1980s is based on a smaller pool of departments, reported in Robert Townsend, "AHA Surveys Indicate Majors and BAs Drop While Enrollments Rise," Perspectives (December 1998): 3.

2. National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 1999, available at http://www.nces.ed.gov/pubs2000/digest99/d99t301.html.

3. Since 1989, the AHA has sent out surveys to the more than 600 history departments listed in the AHA Directory of History Departments, inquiring about course offerings, enrollment, and faculty employment data. The data provided in this article draws on information from the 1988–89, 1991–92, 1996–97, and 1998–99 surveys, with between 33 and 45 percent of the departments responding to each survey. For 1989 N=235 departments, for 1992 N=274, for 1997 N=218, and for 1999 N=219.