History’s Smaller and Smaller Pond

Last spring I wrote a post called “History’s Future” in which I pointed out the unsettling trends in history enrollments from the 2011-12 IPEDS data. Today, I was reminded of that post, and an earlier on on the gender (enrollment) problem in our field, because the most recent projections from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) called “Projection of Education Statistics to 2021” further reinforce why we should be worried about enrollment data in post-secondary history education.

Just a reminder — history at the undergraduate level in the United States is an overwhelmingly white and male discipline at a time when college and university enrollments, with the exception of a few disciplines like engineering, are overwhelmingly female and increasingly non-white. If historians can’t find a way to expand the appeal of our discipline among females and the non-white population on our campuses, the pond we’ll be swimming in is just going to get smaller and smaller.

The NCES is projecting a 15% increase in post-secondary enrollments in the United States between 2010 and 2021, with a 12% growth in full time students and an 18% growth in part time students. Here’s where the problems arise for history — unless we find a way to change, that is. The NCES is projecting an 18% increase in female enrollments, but only a 10% increase in male enrollments. Among racial and ethnic groups, the NCES projects only a 4% increase among white students, but a 25% increase in African-American enrollments, a 42% increase in Hispanic enrollments, and a 20% increase in Asian enrollments. In other words, almost all the enrollment growth projected for American higher education is going to be among student groups who seem to find our discipline less appealing.

And, by the way, on the racial and ethnic front, the news just gets worse, because between 2009-2021 the NCES is projecting a 9% decline in white high school graduates, as compared to a 6% increase in African-American graduates, a 63% increase in Hispanic graduates, and a 35% increase in Asian graduates.

In short, there is nothing in the data, either from IPEDS or from the NCES, that should give us hope for the future of our discipline. Are we going to go out of business? Hardly. Will history departments begin to get smaller and smaller as enrollment pressures combined with constrained budgets begin to force deans and provosts to make difficult decisions about where to allocate scarce faculty lines? You bet.

Fortunately, the solution lies with us. As a radical first step, I’d suggest going to the source and asking the students themselves why they didn’t major in history, as compared to something else? The results of such a survey, probably best conducted or funded by the AHA, could then provide the basis for a productive conversation among historians from all institutional types — community colleges (where more and more of our majors begin their post-secondary careers every year), liberal arts colleges, and universities of all types, shapes, and sizes. And that conversation could result in productive changes in how our discipline is delivered at the undergraduate level.

There is no quick and easy solution to this problem — if there were, magic wands would have been waved some time ago. But there is a solution. If we decide we’re interested.

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