Why Are Fewer People Majoring in History?

Since the Great Recession, the number of history majors at colleges and universities has dropped by more than 30 percent

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What is happening to the history major? Wikimedia Commons

The Great Recession reshaped the United States in a number of ways, but a new analysis suggests it was strong enough to even impact the past. Writing for the American Historical Association's blog Perspectives on History, Northeastern University’s Benjamin M. Schmidt crunched the numbers and found that since the financial crisis hit in 2008, the number of history majors at colleges and universities has dropped by more than 30 percent.

According to statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 34,642 history majors in 2008. Fast forward to 2017, the count was 24,266. Most of that decline occurred after 2012, with a notable single-year drop of more than 1,500 between 2016 and 2017.

Schmidt points out that the history major has had low points before. The discipline weathered a significant decline from 1969 and 1985, when the major dropped by 66 percent. However, those numbers were linked to higher education’s boom in the ’60s that saw the discipline’s rapid expansion and subsequent bust when higher education growth slowed in the ’70s.

The exodus from history this time around is especially pronounced at private, not-for-profit institutions. While all demographic groups are impacted, the highest drops in the field have been seen among Asian-Americans and women, according to Schmidt, who notes that the Department of Education's methodology only accounts for, among other things, binary gender in its polling questions.

History isn’t the only discipline in the humanities hemorrhaging undergrads. English, foreign languages, philosophy and anthropology are among those that have seen big drops as well. But the new analysis shows that since the 2008 Recession, history has suffered the steepest decline.

“One thing I learned earning a history degree is that people usually announce a ‘crisis’ so they can trot out solutions they came up with years earlier,” Schmidt wrote in an article sounding the alarm in the Atlantic this summer. “I don’t have any right now. But the drop in majors since 2008 has been so intense that I now think there is, in the only meaningful sense of the word, a crisis.”

So why are students avoiding majoring in our shared past? Schmidt tells Emma Pettit at the Chronicle of Higher Education that post-recession, the trend is for students to pursue majors that appear to have higher job prospects rather than follow their academic interests. “Students and their parents seem to be thinking a lot more that they need to major in something practical, [something that is] likely to get them a job at the back end,” he says. The emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education, he adds, has also led more students away from majoring in the humanities, in hopes of graduating with a degree that will land them a more lucrative job.

But that anxiety around job prospects from a humanities education isn’t necessarily rooted in reality. While students and those who help them make decisions about their education may believe that humanities degrees don’t lead to good jobs (thanks, Garrison Keillor), the American Community Survey (ACS), which has been conducted by the US Census Bureau annually since 2000, reflects a more nuanced picture of graduates. As Paul B. Sturtevant detailed for AHA’s Perspectives in 2017, the ACS's statistical survey of 3.5 million American households “suggest[s] that the picture for history majors is far brighter than critics of the humanities would have you believe, even those who think the sole purpose of a college degree is to achieve a well-paying job.”

In an interview with Pettit of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Schmidt also points out another, more hopeful, reason for declines in the major: Smaller cross-disciplinary majors like African-American studies and women’s and gender studies are also attracting students, who may have previously opted to major in history. These majors give students a specialized lens into their area of study and offer the promise of more personal attention and opportunities than larger programs. “These more-traditional majors are just becoming less and less central to higher education as time goes on and as newer, cross-disciplinary programs become more accessible at a wider variety of schools,” he says.

So what’s to be done to take the history major back to the future? The first step might be demythologizing what it means to major in history. The AHA Tuning Project, for one, is working to “articulate the disciplinary core of historical study and to define what a student should understand and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program,” and will be holding a session at the 2019 annual conference to give undergraduate advisors more tools to counsel students on the opportunities a history degree presents.

For now, as Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed reports, at least one university is bucking the trend. For the class of 2019, history is the most popular major at Yale University, after a major slump in the 2000s. Alan Mikhail, incoming chair of the history at Yale, says that the discipline’s success is no accident. The program actively recruits students, hires new faculty members in areas of growing interest and rejiggered the major to make it a more linear course of study, more akin to the way students move through STEM fields. “One important thing that came out from our conversations with students when we were considering changes was that the major lacked coherence or a logical path,” he says. “Students are [now] with each other in classes in all four years, work on the same problem sets, and build camaraderie."

Observing the data, Schmidt says the worst drops in the history major may be over. "It is reasonable to hope that the trends of the last decade will eventually bottom out, perhaps even in the next year or two," he writes. Mikhail, for his part, believes that, at least at Yale, the current historical moment may bring more students back into the historical fold. He points out that economic and political models failed to predict the turning points of the last two decades, including 9/11 and its aftermath, the economic crisis and the 2016 election. Instead of relying on models and algorithms, he argues, society is learning that it needs more people with a critical eye, long-term perspective and familiarity with the nuance and messiness of the past to help guide us into the future. In other words, historians.