With rising tuition costs and tough job markets, more and more focus has been placed not only on the comparative affordability of colleges, but on major choices as well. Across the media, discussion abounds over which majors are the most profitable, the declining popularity of the humanities, and the current push to steer students toward STEM degrees.

But what, actually, are the current trends in major choices? And how are students really deciding where to focus their studies? Are they following the dollars, or their passions?

Stability in College Majors

One might expect that the liberal arts are in the midst of a rapidly declining death-spiral, while more practical or technical majors have surged wildly in popularity.  But the truth is somewhat surprising. According to an interactive graph put together by Ben Schmidt, a researcher at Northeastern University, the percentage of students in most majors has remained more or less unchanged since the mid-1960’s. Here’s a snapshot of the graph, looking at all the areas of study covered by the research:

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Shifts in College Majors

There are, however, a few exceptions. You might think that students, looking to make their first billion at 25 by launching the next Snapchat, would be rushing to computer science departments around the country. The percentage of of students choosing the major, however, has declined since 1986:

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The percent of undergraduates obtaining business degrees, meanwhile, has nearly doubled in the last 40 years, from 12% in 1966, to 21% in 2011 (more than all the social sciences or humanities combined). As Schmidt points out, however, those numbers can be deceptive – the rise is entirely due to women arriving on college campuses:

“Female business majors were virtually nonexistent in 1970. Now 1 in 10 college students are women majoring in business. Male business majors, on the other hand, are essentially constant as a percentage of all college students….If college students were really flocking to majors they thought would get them careers, wouldn’t more men be majoring in business? If you restrict the time period to something that isn’t ancient history business majors haven’t increased at all.”

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Here are the few other exceptions to the overall stability of majors. The percent of psychology majors increased, seeing the biggest growth since the 60s, as did the percent of students studying life sciences. English and Education majors, on the other hand, decreased meaningfully, realizing the most drastic declines of any subject studied:

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For further context, here’s a chart listing the raw numbers of degrees conferred, by subject, from the US Education Department. Interestingly, the top fields in terms of number of degrees conferred are the pre-professional fields of business, health professions and related clinical sciences, comprising about one-third of total degrees, and just over 30% of Bachelor’s degrees. The next most popular fields involve the traditional liberal arts areas of the humanities and social sciences, which comprise the vast majority of degrees.  STEM areas of technology-engineering-computers-math draw only 11% of students.



Influences on Students’ Choice of Major

Overall, the fact still remains that the choices of college majors have remained surprisingly consistent over nearly 50 years, across a vastly shifting technological, economic and political landscape. So much about the world – and about employment – has changed. So why have these statistics remained the same? One possible explanation is that, despite the many trends and pressures, economic or otherwise, that could point students in various academic directions, people choose their majors today for the same reasons they did decades ago. According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, 89% of students chose their major based on their interests and skill-sets, not on the ease of finding a job or earning a higher salary:


While employment landscapes may vary over the years, human passion and curiosity does not. People will always be interested in subjects like history, philosophy, and so there will always be people to major in these departments.


What do Employers Value?

And in fact, following your passions isn’t necessarily the poor career choice it’s sometimes made out to be. A recent survey of 225 employers issued by Millennial Branding and Experience Inc. found that employers look for liberal arts majors almost as much as engineering students. In a recent Huffington Post article on the subject, Jennifer Floren, Founder and CEO, Experience, Inc., said:

“Of all the things employers look for when hiring entry-level talent, it’s the so-called ‘soft skills’ that are valued most: communication, teamwork, flexibility and positive attitude… Employers understand that everything else can be taught, so they look for the most promising raw material to work with.”

Whether you need guidance choosing a college, major, or career, contact Collegiate Gateway. We’re always happy to help.