While there’s been something of a recent uptick in claims that employers are moving away from requiring a college degree for many entry-level jobs, most labor market projections still envision a future economy where the demand for college-educated workers will continue to grow.
These projections focus not only on the number of graduates needed but also the fields of study that will be most in demand. So how are college students responding to this information?
Are they shifting their choice of majors toward more specific career preparation as is often suggested? Are the social sciences and the arts and humanities taking a back seat to health professions, business majors and other applied fields?
The most complete data on the majors of college graduates are reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, which charts the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by US colleges and universities in 32 degree fields. (Think of a degree field as a major or a collection of related majors.)
Based on the most recent data available, as summarized in the Department of Education’s 2022 Condition of Educationn, here are five of the most remarkable trends in the number and nature of Bachelor’s degrees awarded over the past ten years.
The Number of Undergraduates Earning a Bachelor’s Degree Has Increased Substantially And The Demography of Recipients Is Changing
Regardless of major, the number of undergraduates earning a degree has increased substantially over the past decade. Between 2009–10 and 2019–20, the total number of bachelor’s degrees conferred increased by 24%, from approximately 1.6 million degrees to approximately 2.0 million degrees. The increase occurred during the same time period that saw a 9% decrease in the total number of undergraduates enrolled in college.
Women have earned 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, females earned 58% (1,177,168 million degrees) and males earned 42% (861,263 degrees) of all Bachelor’s degrees conferred. Ten years earlier, females earned 57% (943,259 degrees) and males earned 706,660 (43%) of awarded Bachelor’s degrees.
However, the race/ethnicity of Bachelor’s degree recipients has changed significantly. In 2009-10, 71% of baccalaureate degree earners were white. In 2019-20, the percentage of white Bachelor’s degree recipients decreased to 58%. Blacks earned roughly 10% of the 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 gains in their representation among Bachelor’s degree earners. Hispanics received just 8.5% of Bachelor’s degrees in 2009-10. By 2019-20, that percentage had increased to 15% of all degree recipients. Asians/Pacific Islanders made up 7% of Bachelor’s degrees in 2009-10; that increased to 8% in 2019-20.
The Ten Most Popular Fields of Study
Of those 2.0 million bachelor’s degrees conferred 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 conferred 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); communication, journalism, and related programs (5%, 91,800 degrees), and education (4%, 85,100 degrees).
The Majors That Lost the Most
Considering those majors that had at least 5000 graduates in 2019-20, nine fields of study experienced decreases in awarded baccalaureates over this ten-year period despite the overall increase in college graduates. Education, social sciences and humanities had the largest losses. In raw numbers, here are the ten-year declines in those majors:
- Education – 16,230
- English Language/Literature- 15,193
- Social Sciences and History – 11,618
- Foreign Languages - 5,202
- Liberal Arts/Humanities – 4,060
- Theology – 1,864
- Architecture – 1,006
- Area/Ethnic/Cultural/Gender Studies – 853
- Philosophy/Religious Studies – 614
The Majors That Gained the Most
Among the fields showing the largest absolute gains over these ten years, practical, occupationally oriented majors topped the list. Here are the fields that added at least 10,000 Bachelor’s degrees from 2009-10 to 2019-2020.
- Health Professions – 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
- Math and Statistics – 11,187
- Communications/Journalism – 10,472
The Rise of STEM Degrees
Among bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2019–20, about one in five – 21% (429,300 degrees) – were in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) field.
Looking at the component majors that comprise the STEM field – Math and Statistics, Computer and Information Sciences, Physical Sciences, Biology and Biomedical Sciences and Engineering and Engineering Technologies – the biggest percentage gainers over the ten-year period were:
- Computer and Information Sciences, with a gain of 245%,
- Math and Statistics, at 70% increase,
- Engineering/Engineering Technology, which saw a 67% increase in degrees,
- Biology and Biomedical Sciences, a 47% increase,
If we consider Agriculture and Natural Resources to be a STEM field because of majors such as plant and animal sciences, it showed a 59% increase in degrees. Physical Sciences had the smallest increase in degrees awarded – 31%.
The ten-year changes in awarded Bachelor’s degrees reveal a pronounced migration to more applied, job-related, skills-based curricula, a trend that’s consistent with multiple national surveys showing that getting a good job is the number one reason students cite for going to college.
Students are listening to the job market’s call. As well they should. And yet, the steady demise of the social sciences and humanities must be of concern. One would hope that faculty in these fields would devote more attention to attracting students to their disciplines. One strategy would involve making changes in these majors to emphasize their potential practical relevance. That approach might not be popular among some faculty purists, but it’s worth considering nonetheless.
Another option would be to increase coverage of these fields through a greater emphasis on double majors – eg, foreign language and business, philosophy and biomedical sciences, or mathematics and sociology – combining basic disciplines in ways that complement and enhance one another.
And finally, leaders in the humanities and social sciences need to help students discover the intrinsic value, the intellectual capital and the preparation for informed citizenship that a solid grounding in these disciplines can provide.
A turnaround – or at least a rebalancing – in these degree trends is possible. It would be welcomed.