Free For All (3)

In my two previous posts [first|second] in this series, I suggest some reasons why history departments should care, a lot, about improving connections to our nearby community colleges. In this final post in this series I want to suggest two more reasons why we need to start building much closer and more strategic relationships with community colleges (and K-12 schools) in our institutions’ primary markets.

Reason #1 — History Majors Are in Long Term Decline

The long term decline in the number of history majors nationally has been well documented by Robert Townsend, formerly at the AHA. In addition to the factors Townsend sites in the article linked here, we have to confront the fact that unless we find a way to make the history major more appealing to female students, our discipline will be swimming in a smaller and smaller pond every year.

One of the easiest ways to reverse the decline in enrollments in our major is to get to know prospective majors during their very first semester of college, whether that is on our campus or on the campus of our local community colleges. Because more and more students will be beginning their college experiences at a community college, that’s where we need to go to meet them, talk with them, inspire them, and most of all, convince them that history is a good major for them–not just a major destined to lead to a career highlighted where they get to say, “would you like fries with that.”

And the easiest way to get to know these students is to get to know our colleagues at the community colleges, to find interesting and generative ways to work with them, and to build long term partnerships around teaching, research, internships, study abroad, and other similar opportunities. Having visited many community colleges over the years, I feel safe in saying that overtures to our colleagues on these campuses, so long as they are made to colleagues, will be warmly embraced.

Reason #2 — Access Will Be the Most Important Issue in Higher Education

Without a doubt, the most important issue facing higher education in the coming decade will be finding ways to deal with the documented fact that more than half of all public school children in the United States now live in poverty. In addition to being a national disgrace, this stark fact means that finding ways to improve access to higher education is going to be (or better be) on the top of the agendas of every leader of every college and university in our country.

What can we do about that, you might ask? After all, we don’t set tuition rates or financial aid policies at our institutions.

Defining the problem this way is very simple, but doesn’t really work, because it lays off the problem on others, making it easy for us to throw up our hands in despair. Of course access is, above all things, governed by financial factors, and of course we have little to no influence on those factors. But that’s not the same thing as having no seat at the table when it comes to discussions of access.

Access is also defined by aspiration, preparation, and retention of students. As historians, we can engage with our local schools to help students aspire to college and to be prepared for college. In his presidential address to the AHA in 1985, Princeton historian Arthur Link argued passionately for just such an engagement–not for exactly the same reasons, but with grand vision nonetheless.

I chaired a panel at our most recent annual meeting “How Teaching Became a Mission of the American Historical Association from the 1960s” in which the panelists similarly discussed the vital and active role the AHA and its members used to play in the schools. At that panel, I raised my hand to admit that in my 14 years at George Mason University I have never reached out to the faculty at Robinson Secondary School that is essentially right across the street. So, guilty as charged.

The other way we can have a major impact on student access is by becoming full partners in our institutions’ student retention efforts. Study after study shows how important faculty are to student success, not only in the classroom, but also in so many out of the classroom ways. We don’t need to work only with history majors–we can be mentors to students across the disciplines, can help our administrative staff who worry about retention every day with any number of initiatives–and the results of these efforts will be positive not just for our institutions, but for our society as a whole. Sure, this sort of engagement might not improve the number of history majors, but it is without a doubt the right thing to do.

Over the past few years I’ve had many conversations with colleagues around the country about falling history enrollments and in most of those conversations my colleagues have expressed a sense of powerlessness when it comes to changing their enrollment fate. If we leave it to others to improve our numbers then we are indeed powerless. But if we engage with the enrollment efforts of our institutions, with our community college colleagues, and with K-12 schools in our communities, we are anything but powerless.