In the April issue of Perspectives, Rob Townsend offers what is perhaps his last analytical article for the American Historical Association’s monthly newsletter (Rob has moved on from the AHA to a new job): “Data Show a Decline in History Majors.”
From the title of this post, you might be inclined to think that I’m worried that a decline in history majors is the looming disaster for history departments around the country. If only it were that simple. You see, undergraduate history programs don’t have an enrollment problem. We have a gender problem.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2010 just under 57% of all undergraduate students at 4-year non-profit institutions of higher education were female and the data for degrees conferred are similar. According to Rob’s article, fewer than 41% of the BA degree recipients in history departments were female in 2011. Our data here at George Mason are even worse. Female history majors represent only 40% of our total at an institution where 62% of our undergraduate students are female.
That yawning gap between overall undergraduate enrollments and history enrollments is the size of our gender problem.
The problem is bad enough on its own to require us to take action as a profession. In addition to the obvious need to do something about the relatively low popularity of history as a discipline among undergraduate women, we also need to fix this problem for pragmatic reasons. As has been reported widely over the past several years, institutions of higher education are increasingly enrollment driven. This isn’t news to private institutions who have been living and dying by their enrollment numbers for years. But it is a new experience for many public institutions, who only in the past decade or so have been learning what it’s like to live or die by the same data. In this fiscal environment, if we don’t fix our gender problem soon, history departments all across the country should expect to see tenure lines and other important resources shifting to departments with more robust enrollments — enrollments that will only be robust with large numbers of female students.
What is to be done? None of the answers are simple or obvious and there is certainly no silver bullet that could solve our gender problem in undergraduate history education. Instead, I think it is high time we embark on a sustained conversation about change in undergraduate history education — including changes that will make our discipline just as appealing as other majors are to the largest segment of the undergraduate enrollment on our campuses.
The alternative is to decide that history is doomed to be an ever smaller part of the undergraduate enterprise. I believe that if we really commit ourselves to doing something about our gender problem, we can and will find ways to change for the better. But we need to commit. And soon.