“The decline of historical thinking,” read a New Yorker headline.

“The vanishing history major,” said an Inside HigherEd article. “Can it be saved?”

“Why are students ditching the history major?” the Chronicle of Higher Education wondered.

Historian and digital humanities specialist Benjamin Schmidt (formerly of New York University, currently vice president at Nomic), whose research prompted these and other similar headlines, has called the drop in history majors a “crisis.” His work shows that the annual number of history bachelor’s degrees in the United States has decreased by about half since the early 2000s, and that history’s share of undergraduate degrees is at an all-time low since 1950, when reliable data became available.

It’s difficult to square this with the popularity of historical themes in mass culture: best-selling biographies, Broadway smash hits like Hamilton, films like Oppenheimer, and novels like The Underground Railroad. History—the discipline—is constantly in the news, from the controversy over the 1619 Project to the debate on critical race theory to the battle over what’s taught in history classrooms. History is also big business, with millions of visitors spending billions of dollars to visit history museums, battlefields, and other sites around the globe.

Yet not only are history majors decreasing, fewer college students are taking history courses, according to data from the American Historical Association.

The reasons are tricky to pin down. Nationally, history majors peaked in the late 1960s. They shrank at the greatest rates during times of economic strife, in the 1970s and again after the 2008 recession. Students entering college in the 2000s had been inundated with the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to compete in an economy increasingly driven by innovations in those fields. Starting in the 1970s, at U-M and other schools, students interested in history could choose from new majors: African American studies, women’s and gender studies, and (later at U-M) international studies.

At the University of Michigan, the story is a bit more complicated—and less dire.

“We’ve certainly seen a decline in history majors since the 1990s, but our enrollment is steady,” said Angela D. Dillard, chair of the U-M History Department. “We’ve also seen strong growth in History minors, which were introduced in 2000.”

At Michigan, students are continuing to engage in history, but in a different manner. Fewer majors, more minors, and steady enrollment suggests that more students are taking history courses, but that the average number of history courses they take is decreasing. Why not fully commit and major in history?

“Today’s undergraduates are extremely savvy,” said Dillard. “College isn’t getting any cheaper, and students are weighing the cost of their education against their job prospects and earning potential.”

“You can’t blame them. They’re constantly hearing about careers in technology, about STEM education. But the reality is that history majors are just as employable as other majors. So it’s up to us to make the case,” said Dillard.

For years, STEM fields have been lauded as a foundation for high-earning, recession-proof careers. At U-M, the number of computer science majors in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts has grown eightfold since 2013. It’s easier to connect STEM disciplines to a related career: students who study computer science work with computers; students who study engineering usually become engineers. The same goes for professional schools with direct vocational links, like law, nursing, medicine, business, education, and social work.

It’s harder to make this connection for history. Few history majors actually become historians. Other liberal arts fields share this trait: Few English majors become novelists or poets. Few biology majors become biologists. But the lack of a determined, concrete career path doesn’t mean that job prospects, or even earning potential, is worse.

“The job prospects for history and other liberal arts majors are actually really good,” said Professor Victoria Langland, U-M History’s director of undergraduate studies. “But it’s harder to articulate to prospective students just what the data tell us, because the findings are not as straightforward as they might seem for other fields.”

“When students ask us what they can do with a major in history, we say: lots of things! This might sound like we’re evading the question, but it’s actually true. History majors go into many different areas, from marketing to fundraising, not to mention teaching,” said Langland.

The latest career data from the American Historical Association show that history majors land in a wide variety of careers, the top being education (18 percent), with about half of these individuals working as primary and secondary teachers (the category also includes those working in libraries and training). 

Professors Matthew Spooner (right, front) and Ian Shin (right, back) talk with prospective students at the Major / Minor Expo (photo: Gregory Parker).

Management (15 percent), legal (11 percent), sales (10 percent), and administration (10 percent) round out the top five. There is additional variety within these subcategories, especially management and administration, which cover a range of jobs.

History majors are critical thinkers who can research, analyze, and interpret vast amounts of data. They are top-notch writers who can work independently and collaborate. Increasingly, they are fluent in digital tools and technologies. The skills they pick up in history classrooms are in demand by today’s employers in many fields.

“The options are liberating, in a sense, but it places more of a burden on students to connect the dots and develop their own careers. And on us for helping them do so,” said Langland.

Notably, 4.5 percent of graduating history majors reported they were teaching at colleges and universities (most of these individuals would be college professors), and less than 1 percent reported working at museums.

Overall, according to the American Historical Association, about half of history majors end up going to graduate school and earning an advanced degree.

“History majors don’t just get accepted into professional schools like law, business, or medicine—they excel there,” said Langland.

U-M History continues to offer an incredible range of courses spanning thousands of years across all regions of the globe. But it’s also developed new classroom approaches, like HistoryLabs, which provide students the opportunity to apply historical thinking to addressing real-world challenges. Many courses are collaborative, and instructors have embraced digital technologies—podcasting and online exhibits—allowing students to develop skills beyond the traditional term paper.

History students at U-M can also count on the support of faculty and staff advisors, and a host of career and professionalization programs, including alumni panels, graduate school informational sessions, and history-specific internship opportunities, including a new partnership with the Michigan Historical Society.

U-M History is one of the largest history departments in the country, with staffing and fiscal resources to match. It’s also backed by the largesse of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and the university itself.

The story isn’t as sanguine at other institutions with fewer resources. Other departments have experienced significant drops in majors and enrollment—again, the national trend is downward. There are extreme cases where history departments have been combined with other humanities units or eliminated entirely.

This downward trajectory is not inevitable. Nationally, history majors declined in the 1970s and recovered slightly in the mid 1980s. U-M History isn’t the only department working proactively to bolster the case for undergraduate history courses. It’s a perennial issue for the American Historical Association. 

“As historians, we know that studying history is essential to understanding the world,” said Dillard, who is entering her third year as chair. “But we can’t take that for granted.” 


Originally published in the 2023 edition of the History Matters magazine.