Rethinking the Undergraduate Political Science Major

 John Ishiyama, Professor of Political Science University of North Texas,

From May 31 to June 2, a major conference was held in Denton, Texas, hosted by the Department of Political Science of the University of North Texas and generously funded by a special projects grant from the American Political Science Association (APSA). The conference had 30 participants from across the country, with 16 presentations on various aspects of the undergraduate political science curriculum. These included presentations on the first day of the conference about the current state of the major nationally, and how various colleges and universities are restructuring their major to meet new challenges and demands. On the second day the conference focused on various models of curricular structure that exist, the need for the reaffirming role of civic education and engagement in the curriculum, and how different departments are addressing the demand for marketable and employable skills.

There is clearly a need to serious rethink the undergraduate political science major. Indeed, there has not been a major APSA sponsored curriculum reform effort regarding the undergraduate political science major (hereafter, UPSM) since the publication of “Liberal Learning and the Political Science Major: A Report to the Profession,” referred to as the now-famous “Wahlke Report” because the chair of the committee was John Wahlke (pictured on the cover of the program) (Wahlke 1991). That report promoted a vision of liberal education and the political science major that emphasized the structure and sequencing of courses to better promote the acquisition of critical thinking and other important transferable

This essay is part of Educate’s ‘Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List.’

skills.[1] This report was a landmark in the history of the discipline and the APSA. In many ways, this conference honored the contributions of Wahlke and his committee to the UPSM. The conference discussion laid out the basis for a new set of recommendations regarding the UPSM, which we hope to work out in greater detail and present at the Teaching and Learning Conference in Albuquerque in February 2020.

Why a need for this conference? 

Today, the discipline faces many new challenges that did not exist in 1991, including declining enrollments, changes in the demographic composition of incoming students, and demands for the development of “employable skills”[2] at the undergraduate level.

However, there are new opportunities as well. The rise in mass political engagement—exemplified by the “Black Lives Matter,” “#MeToo,” and “March for Our Lives” movements—suggests a rising interest in politics. The Wahlke Report, although a major step in providing association-wide guidance on the structure of the political science major is, in our view, outdated. It is time for the association to consider new recommendations regarding the structure of the undergraduate major in political science.

This workshop/conference, was a first step in the direction of reconsidering the recommendations of the Wahlke Report on how to structure the UPSM, will have enormous implications for the discipline as a whole. The time is ripe for such a reconsideration, given the challenges and opportunities currently facing the discipline in terms of undergraduate education. In the next few days, we will be discussing varying aspects of the UPSM—including the learning goals and the skills we want our students to acquire, as well as the various ways majors can be structured to achieve those learning objectives. This conference will work towards putting together a report to address the desirable features of the structure of the UPSM for a new era.

Current challenges facing the political science major

There are number of current challenges facing the UPSM in the United States. First, there has been not only a marked decline in the number of students, but also a “reorientation” regarding where undergraduate political science majors are currently enrolled.  Overall, based on data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in political science from 2011-16 has declined significantly. Over that period, the number of undergraduate degrees awarded in the field has declined from about 40,000 per year in 2011-12 to about 34,000 per year in 2015-16. Further, currently only 1.77% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded are in political science—the lowest level ever recorded (reported in APSA 2017). In comparison, the field of Economics has experienced growth in degrees conferred and is now close to equaling political science in the total number of undergraduate degrees awarded.

In addition to the overall downward trend in enrollments in UPSM, there has been a shift in the institutions that are contributing the most in terms of undergraduate degrees conferred. According to the “2016-2017 APSA Departmental Survey: Degrees Awarded Report,” Political Science programs at public universities (and particularly among PhD-granting departments, which are generally at larger universities) experienced an increase in the average number of bachelor’s degrees conferred between 2014-15 and 2016-17 (APSA 2018). Thus, although enrollments in undergraduate programs have declined overall, there has also been a shift in where those degrees are awarded—in the direction of larger public universities. Such universities tend to have very large class sizes at the undergraduate level. Further, at public institutions there has been an increasing reliance on distance and online learning platforms to deliver content. As conveyed by US News and World Report, which cites a 2016 study by Babson survey group, public colleges and universities had the largest growth in online course enrollment between fall 2015 and 2016, at 7.3 percent (Friedman 2018). Additionally, the report found that roughly two-thirds of all online students enroll in programs at public institutions. It is likely that this trend will continue in the future. The move in the direction of larger class sizes and greater emphasis on “distance” learning, represent important challenges to the traditional liberal model of education.

The student population is also changing. As McClellan (2015) has noted, current curricular models in political science assume a traditional, 18-24-year old, residential, university student population. However, many studies suggest that higher education enrollment will change dramatically in the coming years. The student body will be more ethnically diverse, predominately female, and less likely to comprise 18-year-olds fresh out of high school. The NCES estimates that by 2025 women will outnumber men in enrollment by 11.3 million to 8.4 million. Moreover, it is estimated that African-American enrollment will increase by 25% and Hispanic/Latino enrollment will increase by 34% by 2023. There will also be significantly more older students, with increases expected in both the 25-34 and the 35 and over cohorts by 2025, as well as increases in proportions of the student population who are First Generation College and Nontraditional students. In sum, many curricular models were based on designing a political science major based on the assumption of a large cohort of majority White middle-class young people in a full-time residential setting. This is no longer the case.

A third challenge is the rising demand from various “stakeholders” in higher education that there be a greater emphasis on employable skills at the undergraduate level. Although this has been accompanied by some emphasis on practical skills (and STEM fields), there has also been a re-emphasis on skills that have been associated with liberal education. For instance, the National Association of Colleges and Employers, through a task force of college career services and HR/staffing professionals, has recently pointed to aspects of “career-readiness” (NACE 2018) and has suggested that undergraduate majors should develop the competencies that employers associate with job-readiness, particularly critical thinking, communication skills, and global/intercultural fluency, and perhaps leadership and teamwork. Although traditionally political science has emphasized some of these competencies, other aspects for career preparation are largely missing from many programs.  Yet, it is likely that incoming students interested in employment will demand the development of skills beyond the traditional ones emphasized in political science programs.

Beyond these challenges, there is also growing support for reforming the political science curriculum within the discipline. The assessment movement had led to call for greater attention for learning objectives in the undergraduate curriculum. In addition, a rediscovery of civic and political engagement as a goal of the political science curriculum has occurred. Going back to the rise of the service-learning movement in the 1990s, colleges and universities now recognize the need for “quality civic education to foster the redevelopment of a knowledgeable, capable, and informed citizenry” (Matto, McCartney, Bennion and Simpson 2017, 3). Political science has rediscovered its roots in promoting civic and political involvement, bolstered by a vibrant scholarship of engagement (McCartney, Bennion and Simpson 2013).

Prior disciplinary efforts at curriculum development

As Ishiyama, Breuning, and Lopez (2006) noted, attention to the undergraduate political science curriculum has long occupied the attention of the APSA. In the early period, from about the 1900s to the 1930s, the focus was largely on designing a major that focused on understanding political institutions with a secondary goal of preparing students for public service. In the 1950s, there was a shift away from the descriptive and practical approach to emphasizing the development of critical thinking, communication, and analytical skills and the promotion of liberal education. A major shift occurred after the issuance of a 1987-88 APSA survey report on the undergraduate curriculum that suggested that the predominant model to organize the undergraduate curriculum was a loosely organized collection of distribution requirements, as well as “faddish” electives that had more to do with faculty interests rather than student learning. At about the same time, the Association of American Colleges (AAC)—which had become increasingly critical of loosely organized majors—called on disciplinary associations to formulate recommendations to “strengthen study-in-depth” (AAC 1990). In response, APSA appointed a task force with John Wahlke from the University of Arizona as chair.[3]

Building upon the AAC’s view that depth of understanding cannot be reached “merely by cumulative exposure to more and more subject matter,” the task force report set out to design a model that featured sequential learning, “building on blocks of knowledge that lead to more sophisticated understanding . . . leaps of imagination . . . and efforts at synthesis” (McClellan 2015; AAC 1990, p. 131).  Responding to the 1987–88 APSA survey results, the Wahlke task force strongly criticized what it saw as common practice in political science to structure majors in a “disparate and unstructured” way and argued that this tended to reflect not the promotion of student “experiences in depth,” but rather “bureaucratic conveniences’ (AAC 1990, p. 134).

Unlike previous APSA curricular reform efforts, the Wahlke task force attempted to directly link curricular integrity to liberal learning (McClellan 2015). In particular, the group argued that to best develop critical thinking, analytical and communication skills, it was necessary was to base majors on a sequential model upon which students would build increasingly sophisticated structures of knowledge and intellectual skills. The goal, according to the task force report, would not be to produce “good citizens” or train future public employees. Instead, political science instruction should turn “politically interested and concerned students into politically literate college graduates, whatever their career plans or other interests” (AAC 1990, p. 134). The intent of the task force was NOT to create a model curriculum, but to suggest guidelines for undergraduate political science programs to help promote liberal education.

To that end, the report suggested the following structure for an undergraduate program:

  • A common introductory course (ideally, introduction to politics, but also introduction to American government taught in comparative context);
  • A capstone experience in the senior year, such as a senior seminar or research project, which would give students the opportunity to integrate and synthesize prior learning;
  • A scope and methods course that would expose students to methods of inquiry, normative and empirical (AAC 1990).

What the report did not do was to recommend specific subfields or distributional requirements for a major. Rather, the report suggested that a common set of core topics be covered in one way or another, but these be carefully sequenced in order to build upon—and expand—previously developed skills and competencies. The primary goal was the development of skills, and the task force believed that a structured and sequenced major would lead to the better development of such skills.

Several studies have supported these claims. Breuning, Parker and Ishiyama (2001) demonstrated such positive effects of a highly structured and sequenced program at Truman State University (favorable exit interviews and surveys, insightful portfolios, nationally normed exam results above the national average). Ishiyama and Hartlaub (2003) compared two differently organized political science programs and discovered that the more structured program (at Truman State) was better at developing abstract and critical thinking skills. More generally, Ishiyama (2005a) found in a survey of 32 colleges and universities that programs arranged more along the guidelines of the Wahlke Report (more common courses, senior capstone and early methods course) produced greater learning, as measured by political science field test scores, than did less structured programs. Despite this, it was also found that the Wahlke Report has had a limited impact on the discipline. Ishiyama (2005b) found that of 193 Midwestern political science programs only 18 percent included the basic elements suggested by the Wahlke Report (common introductory course, methods course and capstone experience).  Even when considering the minimal recommendation for the adoption of a capstone course or experience, the APSA 2015-16 departmental survey reported that only a little over half (55%) of programs nationwide had adopted this minimal feature. Although perhaps not as impactful as originally intended, the Wahlke Report remains the last attempt by the APSA to provide guidelines on the structure of the undergraduate political science major.

Moving forward

In a very insightful observation McClellan (2015, p. 12) notes:

“If APSA commissions another blue-ribbon panel, it will have to take into account extraordinary changes surrounding    higher education, the discipline and the profession, and…. the emergence of new alternatives to traditional ways of organizing the curriculum. The biggest obstacle to curriculum reform remains the inability of the discipline to come to an agreement on the goals of political science education. If no agreement can be reached, it might be best for the next ‘report to the profession’ to admit candidly that there is no one right way to organize the political science major. Then we can proceed to identify the curricular and pedagogical conditions under which different goals can be achieved. This may be the way to avoid the failures of past reform efforts, and provide our students with the best chances for success.”

The primary purpose of this workshop/conference was to begin the process is to directly address the call issued by McClellan. This conference is as a first step towards rethinking the undergraduate political science curriculum as proposed by the Wahlke Report. To that end we assembled scholars from a variety of different institutions—Public Research Universities, Regional Public Universities, Liberal Arts Colleges, and Community Colleges—to discuss their experiences and perspectives, and to work together to move towards rethinking the UPSM.

In particular, some of the issues we discussed included:

  1. What are the goals and learning outcomes of political science education, and how do curricular models promote different sets of goals and outcomes?
  2. Should the Wahlke guidelines be retained or abandoned altogether?
  3. Skills that have traditionally been emphasized in political science curricula are critical thinking and communication skills—should other skills as suggested by the employment report also be included?
  4. Also, the structured and sequenced nature of the curriculum recommended by the Wahlke Report assumed a traditional four-year residential college population—how can this be adapted to meet the needs of transfer students, or non-traditional students, or students at community colleges?
  5. How can two-year institutions and high school curricula be included in this report? With increased enrollments at two-year institutions and emergence of “dual credit” courses in the high schools, how should the political science major be adapted to fit these new realities?
  6. Is there a need to more systematically include global and intercultural perspectives into the major?
  7. Should civic engagement be recognized as a central goal of the political science major, and what role should experiential learning play and how should it be made a part of the structure of the major?
  8. How and to what extent should the political science major expose students to the subfields of the discipline? How should the traditional dilemma of breadth vs. depth of knowledge be addressed?

Moving forward, two additional planned meetings will occur in the future to further discuss the formulation of a new report to the discipline. The first will be in the form of a working group at the APSA annual meeting in Washington DC in August-September. Second, we are arranging for the creation of a separate “track” at the TLC meeting at Albuquerque NM to move towards putting together a draft document based upon our discussions in Denton and Washington, as well as further discussion in Albuquerque.

Stay tuned, this promises to be quite a ride!


Association of American Colleges (1990), ‘Political Science’, in: Liberal Learning and the Arts and Sciences Major: Volume Two – Reports from the Fields, Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges, pp. 131–49.

APSA (2018) 2016-2017 APSA Departmental Survey: Degrees Awarded Report, Washington DC: American Political Science Association

APSA (2017) 2015-2017 APSA Departmental Survey: Degrees Awarded Report, Washington DC: American Political Science Association

Breuning, Marijke, Paul Parker and John T. Ishiyama (2001), ‘The last laugh: skill building through a liberal arts curriculum’, PS: Political Science & Politics, 34 (3), 57–61.

Friedman, Jacob (2018), “Study: More Students Are Enrolling in Online Courses” US News and World Report  at Accessed April 2018

Ishiyama, John (2005a), ‘Examining the impact of the Wahlke report: surveying the structure of the political science curriculum at liberal arts colleges and universities in the Midwest’, PS: Political Science & Politics, 35 (March), 71–4.

Ishiyama, John (2005b), ‘The structure of an undergraduate major and student learning: a cross-institutional study of political science programs at thirty-two colleges and universities’, The Social Science Journal, 42 (3), 359–66.

Ishiyama, John and Stephen Hartlaub (2003), ‘Sequential or flexible? The impact of differently structured

political science majors on the development of student reasoning’, PS: Political Science & Politics, 36 (1), 83–6.

Ishiyama, John, Marijke Breuning and Linda Lopez (2006), ‘A century of continuity and (little) change in the undergraduate political science curriculum’, American Political Science Review, 100 (November), 659–65.

Matto, Elizabeth C., Alison Rios Millett McCartney, Elizabeth A. Bennion and Dick Simpson (eds) (2017), Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines, Washington, DC: American Political Science Association.

McCartney, Alison Rios Millett, Elizabeth A. Bennion and Dick Simpson (eds) (2013), Teaching Civic Engagement: From Student to Active Citizen, Washington, DC: American Political Science Association.

McClellan, E. Fletcher (2015), “Best practices in the American undergraduate political science curriculum,” in: John Ishiyama, William J. Miller, Eszter Simon (eds), Handbook on Teaching and Learning in Political Science and International Relations, Cheltenham, UK, pp. 3-15.

NACE (2018), “Career Readiness Defines,”  Bethlehem PA: National Association of Colleges and Employers Accessed April 2018.

Wahlke, John C. (1991), ‘Liberal learning and the political science major: a report to the profession’, PS: Political Science & Politics, 24 (March), 48–60.

[1] Transferable skills are talents and abilities that will travel/transition beyond degrees, hence “life experiences.”

[2] Commonly referred to as “employable skills,” “career-readiness” and “job-readiness” these include: Critical Thinking/Problem Solving; Oral/Written Communications; Teamwork/Collaboration; Digital Technology; Leadership; Professionalism/Work Ethic; Career Management; and Global/Intercultural Fluency to name a few.

[3] The task force was made up of exclusively of representatives of large PhD-granting institutions and small private (and often elite) liberal arts colleges. What was notably absent was representation from regional public universities and community colleges.


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