Although there has been 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 look to 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 on the fields of study that will be in greatest demand. So how do students react to this information?
Are they redirecting their choice of specialization towards more specific career preparation, as is often suggested? Are the social sciences, arts and humanities taking over health professions, trades and other applied fields?
The most comprehensive data on college graduate majors is reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, which tabulates the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by US colleges and universities in 32 fields. (Think of a field of study as a major or set of related majors.)
Based on the most recent data available, as summarized in the Ministry of Education report 2022 Education requirementn, here are five of the most notable trends in the number and nature of bachelor’s degrees awarded over the past decade.
The number of undergraduates earning a bachelor’s degree has increased dramatically and the demographics of recipients are changing
Regardless of major, the number of undergraduates earning a degree has increased dramatically over the past decade. Between 2009-2010 and 2019-2020, the total number of bachelor’s degrees awarded increased by 24%, from approximately 1.6 million degrees to approximately 2.0 million degrees. The increase occurred during the same period which saw a 9% decrease in the total number of undergraduate students enrolled in the college.
Women earned the majority of bachelor’s degrees for many years, and the proportion of female graduates has changed little over the past decade. In 2019-2020, women obtained 58% (1,177,168 million diplomas) and men 42% (861,263 diplomas) of all bachelor’s degrees conferred. Ten years earlier, women had obtained 57% (943,259 diplomas) and men 706,660 (43%) of the bachelor’s degrees awarded.
However, the race/ethnicity of bachelor’s degree holders has changed significantly. In 2009-2010, 71% of bachelor’s degree holders were white. In 2019-20, the percentage of white baccalaureate holders decreased to 58%. Blacks earned about 10% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2009-2010, roughly the same percentage as in 2019-20.
However, Hispanics – and to a lesser extent – Asians/Pacific Islanders have seen their representation increase among bachelor’s degree holders. Hispanics received only 8.5% of bachelor’s degrees in 2009-2010. By 2019-20, this percentage had increased to 15% of all graduates. Asians/Pacific Islanders accounted for 7% of bachelor’s degree graduates in 2009-2010; which rose to 8% in 2019-20.
The ten most popular fields of study
Of these 2.0 million bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2019-2020, 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 diplomas); engineering (128,300 degrees); biological and biomedical sciences (126,600 degrees); and psychology (120,000 degrees).
The other highest 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); communication, journalism and related programs (5%, 91,800 degrees) and education (4%, 85,100 degrees).
The majors that have lost the most
Looking at majors that had at least 5,000 graduates in 2019-20, nine fields of study saw declines in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded during this ten-year period despite the overall increase in the number of graduates collegiate. Education, social sciences and humanities recorded the largest losses. In raw numbers, here are the ten-year declines of these 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 have won the most
Among the fields with the largest absolute gains over the ten years, practical career-oriented majors topped the list. Here are the fields that added at least 10,000 bachelor’s degrees from 2009-10 to 2019-20.
- Health Professions – 127,659
- Computer/Information Science – 57,454
- Engineering – 55,675
- Biology/Biomedical Sciences – 40,199
- Businesses – 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.
When it comes to the major components that make up the STEM field – Mathematics and Statistics, Computing and Information Science, Physical Sciences, Biology and Biomedical Sciences, and Engineering and Engineering Technologies – the biggest percentage gainers over the period ten years were:
- Computer and Information Sciences, with a gain of 245%,
- Maths and statistics, a 70% increase,
- Engineering/Engineering Technology, which saw a 67% increase in degrees,
- Biology and Biomedical Sciences, an increase of 47%,
If we consider agriculture and natural resources as a STEM field due to specializations such as plant and animal sciences, it showed a 59% increase in degrees. The physical sciences recorded the smallest increase in the number of degrees awarded – 31%.
Ten-year changes in bachelor’s degrees awarded reveal a pronounced migration towards more applied, job-related and competency-based programs, a trend that is consistent with several national surveys showing that obtaining a good employment is the main reason given by students for going to college.
Students are listening to the call of the labor market. As well they should. And yet, the constant disappearance of the social and human sciences must be worrying. One would have hoped that professors in these fields would devote more attention to attracting students to their disciplines. One strategy would be to make changes to these majors to emphasize their potential practical relevance. This approach may not be popular among some faculty purists, but it is worth considering nonetheless.
Another option would be to increase the coverage of these areas with a greater emphasis on double majors – for example, foreign language and business, philosophy and biomedical sciences, or mathematics and sociology – combining the core disciplines in such a way as to complement and reinforce each other.
And finally, leaders in the humanities and social sciences must help students discover the intrinsic value, intellectual capital, and preparation for enlightened citizenship that a solid education in these disciplines can provide.
A reversal – or at least a rebalancing – of these degree trends is possible. It would be welcome.