Free For All

Tomorrow night President Obama will propose a new federal program that offers students attending community colleges two years of free tuition. While I don’t think the odds are very good that the current Congress will agree to join hands with the president on this one, I do think that by giving voice to this idea, and linking it to the Tennessee Promise program that does something similar already, the president has at least goosed the United States toward something that substantially expands student enrollments in community colleges.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that over the coming decade either a federal program or a series of state level programs like the Tennessee Promise do take shape. What might be the impact on history departments?

The first thing to remember is that any program that provides free, or almost free, community college education will accelerate a trend that has been going on for some time. Already BA granting institutions give away a substantial portion of the freshman year to those students who show up with AP or IB scores above a certain level. For example, in 2012, the George Mason University history department gave away 424 credits to students based on those scores, costing us somewhere between $166,000 and $487,000 in lost tuition revenue. Already around more than one-third of our new students in any given year come to us as transfers, mostly from the three excellent community colleges in our local area.

If a new federal or state program were to provide an additional price incentive to students to begin at their local community colleges, we (and others like us) would see an even more substantial drop in tuition revenues from our freshman and sophomore courses.

One of the dirty little secrets of higher education is that most graduate programs are subsidized by tuition revenue generated by general education courses. General education classes are larger and increasingly taught by contingent faculty who are paid a good bit less than tenure track faculty, so the revenue per course is much greater. That revenue is what makes it possible for us to offer our seniors seminars with 15-18 students and our graduate students courses with even lower enrollments.

It’s not that difficult to imagine a circumstance ten years hence in which we have lost a big chunk of that general education revenue to our area community colleges. If that happens, as I am convinced it will, we need to be planning now for what our departments will look like in the fall of 2025. It’s not that difficult to imagine what the big changes will be:

  1. Fewer tenure track faculty
  2. Fewer graduate students, especially PhD students

Given the state of the academic job market, fewer PhD students would not be the worst thing to happen for all concerned. And if #1 comes to pass as well, we really, really need to start constricting enrollments in our PhD programs. Or start new tracks in those programs that explicitly prepare students for careers as community college faculty.

If we are mostly teaching upper division courses, then there will certainly not be the need for anywhere near the number of tenure track faculty at many history departments today. We just won’t be teaching as many students and that, combined with the loss of revenue from general education courses, means we are almost certainly going to get smaller.

Assuming history departments around the country are going to get smaller, what will excellence look like in those departments? How will we know we are doing great things? How will we define ourselves and our importance to the overall educational project of the university if the vast majority of our teaching is to majors or graduate students?

We have a lot of good things to say for ourselves and why we matter. But we need to start having these conversations now rather than later.



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The Future of History

In the December 2013 issue of Perspectives, AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman wrote a very interesting essay on the future of history education in America: “Disrupting the Disruptors.” I couldn’t agree more with Grossman’s premise that higher education is a public good and deserves to be treated that way. Alas, as a recent report by the GAO makes clear, all across the country legislatures are inexorably defunding public higher education. And there is no reason to believe this reality is going to change.

In his essay Grossman also makes a strong pitch for the value of a traditional liberal arts education in the face of the disruptions in the higher education business model brought to us courtesy of those who would “unbundle” the degree. I too am a passionate defender of the value of a liberal arts education. I think that as a nation we are making a big mistake if we turn our backs on the value of the liberal arts to our economy, our political and social system, and to our citizens.

Where I have to part company with Grossman, however, is where his argument that an unbundled degree is “a narrow and often isolated experience compared to the liberal education that is available in the hundreds of institutions across the nation that offer curricula, rather than courses.” Alas, that ship has already sailed.

For one thing, history departments all across the country essentially unbundled their degrees decades ago. Last year I did a quick and dirty study of history major requirements at a random sample of institutions — large, small, public, private — and what I found is that history majors look much the same everywhere. They are, by and large, baskets of courses that students select from with the only thing approaching a “curriculum” are requirements that include a methods seminar/capstone seminar experience. Otherwise, it’s pick your courses, add up your credits, and get your degree.

For another, the view of liberal education as “bundled”, meaning students take all their courses at the same institution, is hopelessly nostalgic. Only a tiny number of students in the United States follow this path, and even those who do increasingly arrive on our campuses having skipped substantial numbers of our courses courtesy of the AP/IB courses they took in high school.

And finally, even if the disruptors attempting to eat our lunch with their new and more flexible approaches to course delivery fail, the rising cost of tuition at BA granting institutions, coupled with the truly excellent teaching happening at our country’s community colleges, is driving more and more students every year to complete some or all of their first two years of college at one of those community colleges.

Using my own, putatively low-cost, institution as an example, tuition alone for a full time student in the spring 2015 semester is just over $5,000 for an in-state student and a whisker under $15,000 for an out of state student. That means that before housing, books, meals, parking, and all the various fees we charge them, a full time history major will pay George Mason $40,000 if she is an in-state student and $120,000 if she is an out of state student. Just tuition. Our office of admissions estimates that four years here for an in-state student will cost around $90,000, while out of state students will pay around $170,000.

Our local community college, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), charges in-state students less than half what we charge, and out of state students around 25 percent of what we charge. Given the excellent teaching that happens at NOVA and these cost differentials, it’s no surprise that almost half of our undergraduate students come to us as transfers. And it will be no surprise a decade from now when something like two-thirds of our students follow this same path to our campus.

What does all this mean for History? It means that our departments are going to get smaller and our graduate programs, largely financed through the large enrollments in our general education courses, are in danger of running out of funding. Fewer faculty, graduate programs downsized or dropped altogether — that sounds like a calamity to us.

But to our students? Probably not.

What they want is a quality education that prepares them for life and for work after college. And if we are asking them to spend somewhere between $90,000 and $170,000 for a degree, it seems to me they have every right to this expectation. How they get that quality education that prepares them for a successful life and a successful career matters much less to them than the results do.

Fortunately, we don’t have to sit back and accept that market forces are destiny. But to change our fate, we have to change. For example, why not guarantee every history major an internship? Some institutions, such as our Virginia colleagues at Longwood University, do just that. Why not create some history courses that are more directly employment focused — such as training in digital archiving (a growth industry)? Why not develop a version of the major that is built around service learning, or environmental sustainability, or global engagement, or public policy?

Or, we can just keep doing what we’re doing now — offering lots of interesting courses that students can pick from, cafeteria style, with a smattering of required seminars — and hope for the best. Maybe that will work.


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A Historian and His Place

For somebody not from New Orleans, that city sure is a part of me. From my first visit as a 17 year-old loose in the world for the first time, to my most recent visit in January 2013, I just slip so easily into place. And I can’t escape the feeling that somehow, some way, I’m where I’m supposed to be.

Which is why I think I know, at least a little, how my friend and colleague Michael Mizell-Nelson must have felt about his home town.

Michael died this past week from a rare form of cancer at the age of 49.

It’s funny all the things you don’t know that you thought you knew. Among the thousands of things I was so sure of that have turned out to be wrong was that Michael was from an old New Orleans family.

How could he not have been? If there was something to know about that city, Michael knew it. Streetcars? He was the expert. Po-boys? He was the expert on those too. Ghost stories? He knew them all. Food? Don’t even get me started.


Streetcar, Garden District. Mills Kelly (1977)

I’d known Michael via email for close to a year before I spoke to him on the phone for the first time. I came late to our Hurricane Digital Memory Bank project that Michael, Sheila Brennan, and Tom Scheinfeldt had gotten up and running right after that biblical storm season of 2005. One of the first things I learned from Tom and Sheila was how none of it could have happened without Michael.

I like to think it would please him to know that I had so convinced myself that he was from one of those old, old New Orleans families. The kinds that go back forever. Instead, he and his sister were first generation New Orleans, born of parents who migrated south from Chicago.

Over three decades in higher education I’ve gotten to know an awful lot of smart, talented people. But I can count on one hand the ones who fall into a category best labeled “selfless connector”: Roy Rosenzweig, Stan Katz, and Michael Mizell-Nelson. Like Roy and Stan, Michael was one of those people who seemed to live to connect people with one another. Lord knows he connected me with plenty of folks along the Gulf Coast and around the country. I try hard to be one of those connectors too. But for me it’s an effort. For Michael, it was just who he was.

So many students, first at Delgado Community College, where Michael taught English, then at the University of New Orleans, where he taught history, got to see up close the Michael I had to imagine — what he was like as a teacher. I had big plans to sit in on one of his classes one day. He’d invited me to speak at UNO this fall, and at first I thought that’s when I could sneak up on him and watch him doing what he loved.

But when we spoke about my trip he told me about his cancer and that he wasn’t teaching. That’s okay, I told myself. He’s going to get better and I’ll come back and sneak up on him some other time. Now I’m just going to have to imagine how his gentleness, his love of history at the street level, and his passion for his students came together in the classroom. I’m sure he was a natural. But I also know, because he told me, how hard he worked at it.

When I was helping finish up the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank I had the great good fortune to interview a very talented young photographer whose pictures of a wrecked New Orleans were some of the best I’d seen.

Over the course of a couple hours in a bar she told me her tale, so much like ten thousand others from that summer. How just before Katrina crashed ashore she’d had a dream that convinced her to leave and to take her laptop with with all her pictures. How her apartment had been destroyed by the storm, and how since returning to the city she’d struggled to keep her life from falling completely apart.

I asked her why she’d come back to the city after so much calamity. She smiled and in her very best New Orleans accent, said, “Darlin, my family has been in New Orleans since 1723. This is my place.”

Michael Mizell-Nelson was the first generation in his family in New Orleans. But it was no less his place.

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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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