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Using Our Training to Understand the Decline in History Enrollments


A graduate of UC Berkeley, Nancy Quam-Wickham is a Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach, where she served as chair the department for nearly a decade. She is a member of the AHA’s Tuning Project, and serves as a National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment Degree Qualifications Profile coach.

As historians, we are uniquely trained to analyze why History enrollments are down, and thus, to develop some strategies to address this issue. National trends are important; many of us are overwhelmed and left feeling helpless by the magnitude of these trends. Yet local conditions, those institutional factors and organizational practices that have a direct impact on our enrollments, are critical to understanding what is really going on. The decline in History enrollments is neither universal nor inevitable; we can, in fact, design effective responses to stem our shrinking numbers, particularly at the institutional level. We need to utilize our training, get deep into the evidence, do our research in the data repositories, and undertake meaningful assessments of our students’ experiences before we sound the alarm about declining enrollments. If we do not, we risk that most devastating critique a historian can receive about one’s work: “Your analysis is not supported by the evidence.”

The number of students granted History B.A.s are in decline nationally, but so are overall History enrollments, not just among majors. In response, there has been a good deal of hand-wringing, as well as calls to action—most focused on the value that a history degree provides to students entering the workforce upon graduation. But do we really know why history enrollments are down? Is it just the economy? Will recruiting more history majors really solve the problem? Are students simply avoiding rigorous majors, like History, that require much reading and writing? Or are we just not engaging enough with students?

At my institution, California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), the answer is a resounding no. When enrollments decline, finger pointing begins. In our department, a new narrative arose to explain our loss of majors: Our introductory junior-level methodology course, which the administration had identified as a “high-failure” course, was “too tough”—it scared away students. The problem with this narrative, however, is that these conclusions are entirely unsupported by evidence. The story of our decline in enrollments is far more complex than the reputation of a single demanding course. Instead, students continued to pursue the major, take the tough courses, and even when they performed poorly, most returned the next term with a renewed sense of purpose. Our six-year retention and graduation rate for first-year History majors (at 88.6%) was significantly higher than the university’s. Most History majors—especially transfer students—graduated with a History B.A. degree. And we picked up a significant number of students who changed their majors to History—even during the worst recession years when the university drastically slashed admissions.

Understanding local conditions is crucial to solving the immediate problem of dwindling enrollments at the institutional level. A comprehensive analysis of conditions at CSULB reveals that the university slashed admission rates in the Liberal Arts—and particularly in History—even as student demand increased. Significantly more students were applying for fewer available seats; in 2011 we had an all-time high of over 1,050 applicants for 120 slots!

Here, institutional decisions privileged certain fields, particularly those outside the Liberal Arts. Enrollments in the College of Engineering grew by 50%, a result of increasing demand and more generous admission policies; in not one year did Engineering’s admission rates dip below 40% (compared to our low of 29%). The numbers tell the story: our overall admissions declined by nearly 50% from 2006-2012, but our majors declined by only 30% while our FTES declined by just 18%. We were still serving plenty of students.


The CSU-LB Red Pin alumni map shows the occupations and locations of unnamed alumni.

When such centralized admissions decisions influence our major numbers, we must address issues of employability and what history majors can do with their B.A.s. Our Alumni Red Pin campaign let us create an interactive map showing the occupations and locations of more than 400 unnamed alumni. A 2013 Payscale report showed that Long Beach history alumni earned the seventh highest pay of all history graduates, although the methodology used was less than rigorous. I shared both with the vice president who oversaw enrollment management; the next year, our admit rates rose from 38% to 51%, though I cannot attribute this increase solely to my outreach efforts to administrators. All historians should make widespread use of the excellent data available on occupations and wages on the website of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The median income for History B.A.s in California is $63,000, higher than that earned by the more popular liberal arts majors Psychology, Sociology, and Communication Studies, as well as higher than many STEM majors. In our classrooms, we need to create opportunities to discuss what one can do with a history degree. Law school and teaching are not the only options, nor for our students are they even the primary ones. We must become proficient at marketing the major in ways we have not had to before—to prospective students and their parents, but also to Deans, Directors of Admissions, Provosts, and Presidents.

Employability is just part of the riddle of enrollment decline.  As evidence-based practitioners, one of the most important tasks is to ask the proper research questions: Why does a student become a History major? Why do students take history courses even if they are not majors? There is very little empirical research on the reasons why students become History majors. Existing scholarship demonstrates that positive faculty interactions predict students’ choice to pursue any particular degree, including a History B.A. This finding—the positive effect of high-quality student-faculty interaction—is replicated in the larger Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education. Not surprisingly, other factors include interest in the subject, student perceptions of success in the academic discipline at the introductory level, and student engagement with the “world of ideas.” Another study comparing major choices and parental involvement found that for female history majors only, parental support was an important, though not critical, variable.

The subtle theme running through these studies is one of engagement in the discipline. Students who enjoy a history class may be more disposed to consider pursuing the major, while those who are challenged by rigorous courses yet provided with the resources to succeed may experience a heightened sense of achievement. Engagement can also be achieved by incorporating High Impact Practices into lower-division courses. When I was chair, we attempted to do so: Our critical thinking course, “Facts, Evidence, Interpretation,” was transformed into an inquiry-based course taught only in active learning classrooms that required a collaborative, community-based research project and an individual signature writing assignment across all sections. I assigned only our best instructors to that redesigned course, as good instruction matters. We also developed a thematic, inquiry-driven, collaborative alternative to the U.S. survey course; I have an essay about this effort coming out in the August issue of  The History Teacher journal. Let’s demystify the learning process by explaining to students why we are historians. Create assignments that give students opportunities to integrate skills and knowledge gained in the study of history with their own career goals. We need to develop more exciting and active lower-division GenEd courses that students find interesting—only then might they consider majoring or minoring in History.

Major numbers are important, but the numbers of full-time equivalent students (FTES) are even more critical to the health of any academic department in an enrollment-based budgetary model, as is the case at CSULB. Our FTES enrollments are down, and they have been declining slowly but steadily since the recession. Why? Entering first-year students in all majors are increasingly likely to have accumulated AP U.S. history units, and thus, are not required to take the one course in U.S. history required to graduate. For states that have dual enrollment programs (California does not), the decline in FTES is likely to be more precipitous. Historically, over 95% of our lower-division students are non-majors. Additionally, even as our majors have declined, so has the percentage of non-majors taking our upper-division classes, from about one-third to one-quarter in Fall semesters. In my experience as former chair, our upper-division GE offerings were almost always the first classes to enroll fully once registration opened. We don’t offer enough of these courses.

Engagement, engagement, engagement—in a variety of forms—is what we need. Create and distribute flashy recruitment brochures to feeder schools, as I did the last four years I was chair. Create research opportunities for beginning students. Develop courses that might appeal to those great numbers of students in high-growth areas. Years ago, the chair of Criminal Justice and I developed an advising sheet for students interested in forensic sciences—minor in history and forensic sciences, and major in another field. Typically, history has been a popular major among law enforcement officers and veterans. We need to know more about our students. Use our training to uncover what our students actually experience. In response to one widely distributed survey, our students wanted more internships and more research opportunities. They asked for fewer lectures, more activities. Another questionnaire revealed that 89% of our alumni surveyed valued as highest the “research and writing skills” they gained in the major. Create those surveys. Respond to student needs first. Assess whether or not we’re meeting those needs. That’s what higher education at an institution like mine is all about—helping our students transform their lives.