Tag Archives: enrollment

Making History Matter Again

I was very pleased to see AHA Teaching Division Vice President Elizabeth Lehfeldt take on the issue of declining enrollments in undergraduate history programs in the October edition of Perspectives. Anyone who reads this blog with regularity knows that enrollment issues have figured prominently among the topics I cover, most recently here and here.

The decline in history enrollments around the country isn’t news to anyone teaching at the post-secondary level and the AHA has done a thorough job of documenting some of the parameters of the decline. What’s lacking in this whole discussion is solid data on exactly why students have moved away from history and into other fields. We have lots of reasonable propositions, and I have offered my own suggestions in the posts linked above, but all of us are, to a degree, shooting in the dark because we don’t have actual data from students.

One obvious place to look for such data would be from our campus enrollment officers. Admissions offices, enrollment management consultants, and research centers like the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA have reams of data on student preferences, predispositions, demographic characteristics, and other factors that could be plugged into the kind of regressions that might just tell us a lot about what’s going on. At a minimum, these data would add richness to our anecdotal or surface studies of the problem. I hope the AHA will consider investing in some of this sort of analysis so that we get beyond just asking department chairs what they think is happening.

A second issue I have with what Lehfeldt writes in her essay is the assumption that doubling down on the History Discipline Core of the Tuning Project is going to be a solution to our enrollment problems. I completely agree with Lehfeldt that, as she writes, the Tuning project has “created a common, broadly accessible vocabulary about the value of majoring in history.” But to assert that “Tuning has helped allay students’ and parents’ concerns about ‘what to do with a major in history’,” based on no data to support such an assertion is really troubling. If such data exist, I’d love to see them.

So, yes, Tuning is a good step forward. But, no, I don’t see any evidence cited by anyone that adopting the framework and goals of the Tuning project has either allayed concerns in the market about the value of a history degree, or that the adoption of Tuning has helped change the enrollment trajectories of those departments who have signed on.

In previous posts on Tuning, I’ve been very critical of the fact that, at least to my mind, the Discipline Core is neither forward looking, nor aligned with the world our students live in. As evidence for my contentions, I would offer the fact that in the entire Discipline Core document the digital world our students (and we) live in shows up exactly once…toward the end, where one of the competencies students might gain is the ability to build a website on a historical topic.

Once.

Doubling down on Tuning as the solution to our enrollment problems strikes me as saying that if we just keep doing what we’re doing, but do it more, and do a better job of explaining to students why doing it the way we’ve always done it really, really is good, everything will turn out fine in the end.

The last time I checked, Professor Pangloss was teaching in a different department.

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.

 

 

What Keeps You Up At Night?

Last week I had the opportunity to take part in a private meeting chaired by Jeff Selingo, the purpose of which was to provide him (and his colleagues at Georgetown and Arizona State) with feedback on a (soon to be) new executive education program designed to prepare the next generation of higher ed leaders. The meeting, that followed a very interesting panel discussion, included a mix of university presidents, deans and other senior leaders, foundation executives, search consultants, and others working in and around senior leadership in higher ed.

The facilitator for the session was a former member of George Mason‘s Board of Visitors, Kathleen deLaski, who started us off with the following question: “What keeps you up at night when you think about the future of higher education?”

As you might expect from such a large (30 or so participants) and diverse group, there were many answers to this question, but at the top of the list were concerns about access and the growing inequality that restricted access to higher education is causing. Other big concerns included finding sustainable financial models, issues around teaching and learning, a perception that the pool of potential senior leaders has gotten too shallow, and worries that the internal systems in higher ed are not up to making the changes that will be needed in the coming decade. But only a few of the participants didn’t mention access in some way, shape, or form.

Not convinced that access to higher education is a problem? As Selingo points out in his recent book, College Unbound, a young person’s odds of obtaining a bachelors degree are closely tied to his/her family income. Children coming from homes with a family income above $90,000 per year have a 1:2 chance of obtaining a BA/BS degree by age 24. If the family income is between $60,000 – $90,000, those odds drop to 1:4, and if the family income is below $35,000, the odds fall all the way down to 1:17. Not surprisingly, the odds of someone from a lower income family getting into a highly selective institution are also terrible compared to students from upper income families. (168)

That’s an access problem that should be keeping us all up at night, especially when you realize that 21 percent of children aged 5-17 in the United States are living in poverty, which is a 24% increase over 1990. In other words, the likelihood that any American high school senior is going to graduate with a bachelors degree is just going to keep falling until (a) we figure out a way to get more kids out of poverty and (b) we figure out how to provide greater access to those kids. Otherwise, frankly, we’re in serious trouble as an industry, not to mention as a country.

The solutions to getting kids out of poverty are well above my pay grade, but solutions to access are something I know a little bit about. And what I know is that it is not enough to throw money at the problem — greater funding opportunities for students help, and help a lot, but scholarships and other forms of financial aid are not the only answer. Just as important is creating the circumstances in which students who do enroll can graduate in a reasonable amount of time, i.e., four to six years.

Many colleges and universities devote an incredible amount of energy to student retention programs, and proactive administrative efforts do help. But what also helps, and this is where historians have a role to play, is faculty members who think carefully about student success and design courses and curricula that will facilitate success and learning simultaneously.

This is a complicated problem for history, because when it comes to our majors, too often we don’t see them at all until they are sophomores, because future history majors very often have taken an AP history course in high school and so have placed out of our freshman courses. And those freshman courses all too often exist just to serve the demands of a general education curriculum, not the history major.

Given this reality on so many college campuses, it seems to me that history departments can play their own small role in the larger access/retention problem by rethinking the sequence of courses from the first semester of a freshman’s college experience right through to graduation. And, we need to reach out to our campus retention specialists and ask — what is it that makes it more difficult for our students to graduate? And what can we do to help change that, especially for the students who are at most risk?

Changing the reality of student access and success in higher education is a big issue — far too big for any one discipline to fix. But as historians, we also know that grassroots efforts across a broad population often aggregate into something bigger than one has any reason to expect. In the historical literature we often call those “popular movements” or “change from below.”

It’s high time we started our own popular movement or joined someone else’s.