While there has recently been a surge in claims that employers require college degrees for many entry-level jobs, most job market forecasts still project a future economy where demand for college-educated workers will continue to grow.
These forecasts focus not only on the number of graduates needed, but also on the majors that will be most in demand. How do college students react to this information?
Are they shifting their choice of study towards more targeted professional preparation, as is often suggested? Are the social sciences and humanities lagging behind health professions, economics and other applied fields?
The most complete data on graduate majors is reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. showing the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by US colleges and universities in 32 majors. (Think of a field of study as a major, or a collection of related majors.)
Based on the latest available data as summarized in Department of Education data 2022 state of educationn, here are five of the most notable trends in the number and type of bachelor’s degrees awarded over the past decade.
The number of bachelor graduates has increased significantly and the demographics of the recipients are changing
Regardless of field of study, the number of graduates earning degrees has increased significantly over the past decade. Between 2009/10 and 2019/20, the total number of bachelor’s degrees awarded increased by 24% from about 1.6 million degrees to about 2.0 million degrees. The increase came during the same period that the total number of students enrolled in the college fell by 9%.
Women have been completing the majority of bachelor’s degrees for many years, and the proportion of female graduates has changed little over the past decade. In 2019-20, women earned 58% (1,177,168 million degrees) and men 42% (861,263 degrees) of all bachelor’s degrees awarded. Ten years earlier, women had earned 57% (943,259 degrees) and men 706,660 (43%) of the bachelor’s degrees awarded.
However, the race/ethnicity of undergraduate graduates has changed significantly. In 2009-10, 71% of high school graduates were white. In 2019/20, the proportion of white Bachelor graduates fell to 58%. Blacks earned about 10% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2009-10, about the same percentage as in 2019-20.
However, Hispanics – and to a lesser extent – Asians/Pacific Islanders saw an increase in their representation among undergraduate graduates. Hispanics received only 8.5% of bachelor’s degrees in 2009-10. By 2019/20 that percentage had risen to 15% of all high school graduates. Asian/Pacific Islander accounted for 7% of undergraduate degrees in 2009-10; that rose to 8% in 2019-20.
The ten most popular fields of study
Of those 2.0 million bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2019-20, 58% were concentrated in just six fields of study: business (387,900 degrees); Health Professions and Related Programs (257,300 degrees); social sciences and history (161,200 degrees); Engineering (128,300 degrees); biological and biomedical sciences (126,600 degrees); and Psychology (120,000 degrees).
The next largest percentages of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2019-20 were in the following fields: computer and information sciences and support services (5% or 97,000 degrees); visual and performing arts (5%, 92,300 degrees); communications, journalism and related programs (5%, 91,800 degrees); and education (4%, 85,100 degrees).
The majors who lost the most
Looking at majors with at least 5000 graduates in 2019-20, nine majors recorded a decrease in the Baccalaureate exams awarded during that decade, despite the overall increase in college graduates. Education, social sciences and humanities had the biggest losses. In raw numbers, here are the 10-year declines in these majors:
- Education – 16,230
- English language/literature – 15,193
- Social Sciences and History – 11,618
- Foreign languages - 5,202
- Humanities and Humanities – 4,060
- Theology – 1.864
- Architecture – 1.006
- Area/Ethnic/Cultural/Gender Studies – 853
- Philosophy/Religious Studies – 614
The majors that have won the most
Among the subjects with the largest absolute increases in these ten years, practice-oriented, job-oriented courses led the list. Here are the fields that added at least 10,000 bachelors degrees from 2009-10 to 2019-2020.
- Healthcare professionals – 127,659
- Computer/Information Sciences – 57,454
- Engineering – 55,675
- Biology/Biomedical Sciences – 40,199
- Business – 29,732
- Psychology – 22,753
- Parks/Recreation/Leisure – 20,417
- Agriculture/Natural Resources – 15,505
- Homeland Security/Law Enforcement – 13,431
- Mathematics and Statistics – 11,187
- Communications/Journalism – 10,472
The rise of STEM degrees
Of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2019-20, about one in five — 21% (429,300 degrees) — was in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) field.
Looking at the majors that make up STEM—math and statistics, computer and information sciences, physical sciences, biology and biomedicine, and engineering and engineering technologies—the biggest percentage gainers over the decade were:
- Informatics and Information Sciences, up 245%,
- mathematics and statistics, an increase of 70%,
- Engineering/Engineering Technology, which saw a 67% increase in degrees,
- biology and biomedicine, up 47%,
If we consider agriculture and natural resources as a STEM subject due to majors such as plant and animal sciences, this showed a 59% increase in degrees. The physical sciences recorded the smallest increase in degrees awarded, at 31%.
Decades of changes in undergraduate degrees awarded show a pronounced migration toward more applied, job-related, skill-based curricula, a trend consistent with several national surveys showing that getting a good job is the top reason students go there University.
Students listen to the call of the job market. They should too. And yet the steady decline in the social sciences and humanities must be a cause for concern. It would be hoped that faculties in these areas would pay more attention to attracting students to their disciplines. One strategy would be to make changes in these majors to emphasize their potential practical relevance. This approach may not be popular with some faculty purists, but it’s still worth considering.
Another possibility would be to increase the coverage of these areas by placing more emphasis on dual majors – eg foreign language and economics, philosophy and biomedicine, or mathematics and sociology – which combine fundamental disciplines in a way that complements and enhances each other.
Finally, leaders in the humanities and social sciences must help students discover the intrinsic value, intellectual capital, and preparation for informed citizenship that can provide a solid foundation in these disciplines.
A trend reversal – or at least a rebalancing – of these grade trends is possible. It would be appreciated.