Between seminar papers, fellowship applications and endless pages of reading, history majors at Yale will enjoy one more perk this year.
According to the latest USA Today rankings, Yale’s history major is the best in the country. The magazine’s 2014 rankings, released on Oct. 6, gave the department first place, surpassing rival institutions such as Harvard, Princeton and Columbia.
In other rankings published in recent years, Yale has not ranked first. QS World University Rankings by Subject rated Yale second in the U.S. in 2014. Education-portal.com’s most recent ranking placed Yale 10th in the U.S., while campusexplorer.com named Yale number six among U.S. competitors.
According to the USA Today website, their rankings are compiled using 10 different factors — including early-career and mid-career salary for graduates, the college’s overall quality and the percentage of students at the college studying that major.
Both faculty members and students in the history department were pleased by the recognition. Still, many expressed concern about the ranking system’s method of evaluating academic departments, particularly its emphasis on post-graduation earnings.
“Yale’s history department is exceptional in the breadth and depth of its offerings,” said Carolyn Dean, director of graduate studies for history. “We are delighted that rankings appear to reflect our strengths.”
History major Rebecca Steinberg ’15 said she was not surprised about the ranking results. But Steinberg also said it seemed odd that the methodology of the rankings linked earnings with the quality of the department, especially given the broad range of careers that history majors choose after graduating.
However, Alexander Jacobson ’17 said that while he thinks history is not intended to be profitable in the same way as majors like economics, graduates’ salaries are a practical metric by which to measure a department.
History department Director of Undergraduate Studies Beverly Gage said that Yale is always happy to be number one.
But, like others, Gage also expressed some doubt about the methodology of the rankings, particularly their heavy reliance on salary earnings as an indicator of a major’s strength. Gage said that while it is good that Yale history majors earn competitive salaries after graduation — especially as some students worry that history degrees will not lead to exciting or well-paying jobs — the metric is a narrow way to assess a department.
Gage said factors like the classroom experience, the level of intellectual enrichment and the kinds of contributions students of history make to the world, are better ways to assess the quality of a history department. Yale would do extremely well in these categories, she said.
Harvard University history department chair Daniel Smail said that the rankings’ focus on income was saddening.
“But as they say, we live in a new gilded age, so it is understandable that it should matter to the good people at USA Today and perhaps to students and parents as well,” he said.
According to USA Today’s website, the rankings focus on early graduate earnings because “early career earnings often reflect the employer’s perception of the university and how well prepared graduates are for the workforce.”
David Cameron — a professor in the political science department, which was listed fifth in the same USA Today rankings — said that while it’s gratifying to be ranked highly, these rankings are “silly.”
“The so-called methodology employs attributes that have nothing to do with the quality of a university’s major,” Cameron wrote in an email.
The only metric that may have anything to do with the quality of the major, Cameron added, is its relative size compared to the university’s other majors.
Jennifer Van Vleck, an assistant professor in the history department, said she thinks the ranking failed to account for several important but less quantifiable benefits of majoring in history, such as the way in which understanding the past better enables students to improve the present, and intellectual skills like conducting research, analyzing texts, crafting persuasive arguments and communicating effectively.
This fall, USA Today also released rankings of the nation’s top accounting, biology and math majors.