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The number of college students choosing to major in history has dropped dramatically over the past decade. Students are choosing disciplines like business, economics and computer science – subjects they believe are better suited to the modern job market. After the Great Recession hit in 2007, the number of business majors nationwide went, up while enrollment for humanities majors dropped.

“The number of history degrees granted — bachelor’s degrees — fell from 35,000 in 2012 to this last year, fewer than 24,000,” says Julia Brookins, special projects coordinator for the American Historical Association (AHA). “So, it’s a decline of about a third from the peak. And that’s a lot.”

There aren’t many graduate students in history because there are just too few job openings for history instructors at colleges and universities. At the same time, the number of undergraduate history majors is shrinking because overall admissions are down. Colleges are looking to cut costs, so a declining pool of students is an existential threat to humanities departments.

In response, history professors across the country have banded together to demonstrate the value a of a history degree to students, their families and prospective employers. The historians are also developing new ways to teach, and new methods to assess what history students know and can do.  The AHA launched the nationwide initiative in 2012 and called it “Tuning.”

“Tuning was the incentive that got us talking together at department meetings about what do we want our students to know and to be able to do when they get a history degree,” says historian Lendol Calder of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

One problem history professors confronted was how to get a better picture of what students were actually learning. Waiting for a conventional midterm essay or test meant a foundering student could struggle for weeks before the teacher caught on. So, historians developed new, faster ways to quiz their classes on “historical thinking.”  About 120 colleges and universities have taken part in the American Historical Association’s tuning project.

“I’m confident that if we can avoid this viral disinvestment in history program, the discipline will rebound,” says the AHA’s Julia Brookins. “I think it has intrinsic value has intrinsic value for students and for society. And the departments that have been involved in tuning have done a lot of work in figuring out how they can be most useful to their institutions, to their students, to their communities.”

Brookins is optimistic about the future of history.

This story about history class was produced by APM Reports in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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