Another Big Drop in History Majors: Yes, This Is Still Happening

Historians in the News
tags: history crisis

Allen Mikaelian is an editor, writer, and erstwhile historian living in DC. These charts were first published on Mr. Mikaelian's blog, Flat Hill, where readers can find other fascinating charts.

The world has much bigger problems, but this still bothers me. Last time I looked at this data I wasn’t surprised to see a decline;
I was surprised at how large it was. But maybe that 9 percent drop in history majors between 2013 and 2014 wasn’t aberration after all? Maybe we should have seen it coming as early as 2010, when it became clear that the history major at the big research universities was trending down. Or when it became clear that the “market share,” the percentage of all bachelors degrees that are history degrees, was in a noticeable decline—that’s been going on for almost ten years now. Regardless, now we are here: between academic years ending in 2014 and 2015, the number of bachelor’s degrees in history dropped by 9 percent, for the second year in a row.

Charts below are highly interactive, so rather than having to read my long, dull rundown of all the different breakdowns, you can explore, ask questions, and tell me what you find.

The downward trend in history’s share of the bachelor’s degree pie, evident since 2008, is perhaps more troubling than the raw numbers. The discipline has been falling out of favor since before the Great Recession, and, as I noted in an earlier post, the middling earnings of your average history major might contribute, but some other disciplines offer lower wages after graduation yet attract a growing number of students. I don’t doubt that the pressure to earn after college is a factor, but something else is going on here.

The ever-incisive Julia Brookins has some ideas about the current decline, and I have some ideas to add to her list, but my analysis will have to wait for more info and more time to run through it. Some of Julia’s suggestions on why this is happening can be tested with data, and I’m eager to roll up my sleeves and do that testing, but for now all I can offer are a few different ways to view the devastation.

The bar chart and histograms below show how widespread this devastation is. Between 2013 and 2015 for example, 81 percent of research universities saw a drop in graduating history majors. A declining number of institutions are showing increases. When looking at the distributions below the flat gain/loss comparison, a disturbing number of institutions have lost between 20 and 40 percent of their history majors, regardless of type of institution or time frame.

Hover over a bar segment for a detailed description. 

Charts above exclude outliers – small programs where the addition of a few students swung the percentage above +200%.

Curious about how the major is doing at institutions where it has long been popular, I created a category–history degree percent–that breaks down institutions by how well history majors were represented among an institution’s class of bachelor’s recipients in 2013. Those institutions, which had been among the most successful at drawing students to the major, are now among the strongest drivers of the downturn.

For example, compare 2012 to 2015, and look at institutions that had history majors as 3 to 4.4 percent of their graduating classes. Almost 80 percent of these institutions lost students. Institutions that had a below average proportion of history majors were less likely to see a decline in history BAs during that time. In other words, it looks like the major is more likely to be taking bigger hits at institutions where it once was more likely to be thriving.

I’m eagerly reading and greatly enjoying the raft of recent articles and blog posts by historians how how important and relevant the discipline is to understanding recent turmoils. It can’t be denied that it’s a great time to be a historian. Still, it’s hard to say that historians’ voices are being heard through the noise and are convincing undergrads, or the public at large, that rigorous study of the past matters. History right now seems to be something that students and the public are happy to consume, but not something that they feel the need to go out and do.

(As an aside, that kind of summarizes my attitude toward this blog for the past several months, although my neglect had a lot more to do with an overload of other projects that seemed somehow more important. Or at least more remunerative? Less depressing? Now that some of those projects are behind me and others have settled into a rhythm, I’m rediscovering all the data sets that I’d been avoiding. Not all of the coming posts will focus on providing nifty visualizations of history’s bad news, but that’s what seems to be queued up right now; I’m also hopeful that some of my new approaches might offer data-driven explanations of why this news is so bad. Please stay tuned and send feedback.)

More charts below !

Data from the National Center for Education Statisticsdownloaded from IPEDS, cleaned in OpenRefine and visualized in Tableau Public.

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