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LSA sophomore Jack Wroldsen came to the University of Michigan knowing he was interested in a history degree. Yet Wroldsen said he faced skepticism from parents and employers about the choice when he declared a history major.
“My boss at my internship last summer basically told me that I shouldn’t major in history,” Wroldsen said. “I worked at a law firm, and he asked me ‘When do you ever think I’m going to hire a historian?’ which was interesting. I think people have reservations about it because it isn’t really a field you’d go get a job in unless you want to be a teacher of history or a professor or work in a museum.”
Even so, Wroldsen said he chose to study history because it complements most fields of study, even if others perceive the degree to be useless or unemployable. He’s pairing the degree with economics.
He said a course on Europe since 1945 with Professor Rita Chin convinced him to declare history as his major, alongside economics.
“I’m majoring in history in part because I love it, and it’s what I’m most interested in, but also because I can look at economic history, or business history, or things of that nature,” Wroldsen said. “And people can do that with medicine, they can do it with psychology. Any field has a history to it, and being a history major only supports those interests.”
The skepticism witnessed by Wroldsen mirrors a trend found at the University and across the nation. Jay Cook, chair of the history department, said the number of undergraduate students declaring a history major at the University has decreased each year for the past decade, reflecting a nationwide trend.
A study by Benjamin Schmidt, assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, found that while the number of history majors is declining among students of all races, genders and geographic backgrounds, the dip is most prominent among universities in the Midwest.
Since the Great Recession of 2007-2009 — when the U.S. labor market lost around 8.4 million jobs and a typical household saw their yearly income decline by $2,700 — the belief that majoring in history leads to low paychecks and limited employment prospects has deterred students across the country from pursuing the major.
Even at the University, where the history department is consistently ranked as one of the top ten programs in the country by U.S. News and World Report, the department has noticed the declining numbers in the major despite steady interest and enrollment in history courses.
Degree reports from the Office of the Registrar show that while there were 251 History B.A.s conferred in 2006, the number of history graduates was down to 131 by 2016. That downward trend is matched at Michigan State University, where there were 262 declared history majors in the spring of 2006 and 137 in the spring of 2019.
Cook said while there are currently around 300 declared history majors at the University, compared to 1,390 computer science majors, there are more than 5,000 students enrolled in history courses this semester. This number, he said, has not changed since the 1990s even though the number of history majors has been cut in half. To combat this problem and raise the number of students interested in the history major, Cook said the department worked to improve its public relations and increase its social media presence.
“The decline in majors around the country started around 2010, in the wake of the global recession,” Cook wrote in an email interview. “In UM History, we still teach more than 5,000 students every year and have growing numbers of minors. But it’s true that our majors are down over the past decade—just like every other history department in our conference. Our first response was to focus on messaging with our students— and their parents and friends— to help them understand that majoring in history at UM was not a bad decision at all in relation to the post-grad job market—the tracking data is very clear about that.”
In 2017, the department also developed a HistoryLab program that stresses collaboration and project-based learning. In the labs, a team of undergraduates works closely with a faculty member to develop a project relating to modern, real-life issues. Since the program began, there have been five history labs offered in subjects like immigration law, and race and the criminal justice system.
“The larger goal is to arm our majors with impressive dossiers that go well beyond the older abstractions of ‘primary research’ and ‘critical thinking,’” Cook wrote. “We are still really good at teaching those traditional skills, but they are hardly the limit of what we do.”
Although the number of students declaring a history major has declined since 2000, Cook and Anne Berg, history lecturer and faculty adviser for the Undergraduate History Club, stressed that public interest in the study of history has actually increased in recent years. Berg said current politics and changes to the way history is taught have made people more inclined to educate themselves about where their situation stems from.
“To me, right now history is really really crucial because these sorts of watered-down, simplistic references to any given figure in the past in any development are just doing more harm than good,” Berg wrote. “To me, it seems that there is a real interest in the general public of how we got to where we are, and where certain references and rhetorical moves and legal precedents come from.”
Berg said the dwindling numbers of history majors do not reflect a lack of interest in the field, but are instead products of poor marketing.
“History has a problem— we don’t tend to market ourselves very well,” Berg wrote. “Most people think of history as stuffy old white guys. It’s an important image problem that the historical profession has, and you can see this across the United States with the decline in history majors and history students, and the decline in the humanities in general.”
Schmidt’s study found that drops in history majors were most significant among Asian-American students and at private universities, where tuition averages around $43,000 per year. Even so, both public and private universities have suffered decreasing numbers of history majors.
Cook pointed to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where a proposal put forth by the school’s chancellor in November 2018 suggested the elimination of the history major due a decrease in enrollment of more than 50 percent, as an example of the problematic decrease of history education at regional universities. At the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, around 46 percent of those enrolled are first-generation college students and many come from low-income backgrounds.
Though Cook said the University does not face the same challenges as the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, he described how the history department at the University is trying to appeal to students of all socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds.
“At places like Yale or Princeton, the number of history majors are very strong,” Cook wrote. “But what that suggests to us— and those who track this sort of data— is that students who come from affluent backgrounds don’t worry quite as much about future financial pressures as people going to, say, Wisconsin-Steven’s Point (sic). Moving forward, our goal is to ensure that traditional liberal arts majors like history or English or philosophy don’t become boutiquey majors that only affluent kids at places like Yale can feel confident about choosing.”
However, interest in graduate-level history degrees and doctoral programs has remained relatively steady despite decreased declared undergraduate history majors, Rackham student Zach Kopin said. Kopin, who leads the Graduate Organization of Students in History, highlighted how the doctoral program sometimes has too large of a cohort due to over-enrollment of accepted graduate students.
“We, over time, have to guess if we make a certain number of offers we’re going to get a certain number of acceptances,” Kopin said. “Some years that backfires. In 2009-2010, so many people accepted that there was not a cohort the next year.”
Kopin said the history department’s strength comes from its dedication to teaching communication and writing skills rather than a collection of facts.
“The value for us in history is that, I mean, it’s the cliché thing that you get to learn from the past, but we also teach transferable skills,” Kopin said. “Largely what we teach is actually communication. It’s not historical fact — we hope you remember the historical fact, but what we largely teach is different ways of communicating, whether it be oral presentation, putting together a slideshow or writing an essay, these are all different transferable skill sets that will affect you whether you go into public communications or whether you go into finance or you become a teacher.”
Echoing Kopin’s point, Cook explained the belief that history majors have limited employment opportunities or struggle to find a job after graduation is false, especially since the department stresses the importance of written and oral communication skills.
“The data is pretty clear — U-M LSA majors’ placement rate is about 96 percent, and Engineering, which you could argue is the most practical major of all, is 97 percent,” Cook wrote. “So it’s basically identical between our number one ranked engineering department and LSA majors like history. So a lot of this is a kind of messaging issue and getting students to understand and parents to understand that they’re not creating a kind of dangerous (outcome) for themselves if they choose to major in a liberal arts discipline like history.”