Business and health care up, the humanities sink: higher ed enrollment data

Which degrees are undergraduates pursuing?

We’ve been tracking enrollment patterns for a while, and a new Bloomberg article offers no surprises.  Justin Fox parses NCES data to find that while the humanities decline, business and health care are booming.

The time frame is “Selected years, 1970-71 through 2016-17,” and the pattern is a familiar one.  Fox offers the top 10 undergrad majors in two academic years for contrast, starting with 1970-1971:

majors_1970-1971_NCES by Justin Fox

That’s “Health professions and related programs,” second from last. The Bloomberg site was acting up.

Compare with 2016-7:majors_2016-7_NCES by Justin Fox

Fox points out the continuity of business (funny, I thought Boomers only took classes to find meaning in life…), the decline of the humanities (English just vanishes from the second list), and the rise of health care. He observes that “[t]he most significant development of this century, meanwhile, has been the rise of the health professions…”  Note, too, that biological and biomedical majors are also in the health realm.  I was also struck by the drop in education:

changing majors 1971-2017_NCES Justin Fox

I’d like to dig into that education decline at some point.  How much is due to women starting being able to choose majors other than education and the humanities in the 1970s and 80s?  Fox notes that some of these fields pay much better than teaching K-12, notably medicine (“Of the 238,014 bachelor’s degrees in health professions and related programs awarded in 2016-2017 (about half were in registered nursing), 84 percent went to women”).  How much is due to the stresses of waves of schooling reform?  Have demographic changes – i.e., aging – already been felt in this way?

Fox’s article leaves us with a way for colleges and universities to think about departments, curriculum, and strategy.  He helpfully aids that quest with another chart:

majors that are growing_Justin Fox

Second one is “Parks, recreation, leisure and fitness studies”. #8 is “Public administration…” #9 is “Physical sciences…”

Again, no surprises here, but useful data.  STEM fields really stand out here, and not just in allied health.  Homeland security also appears in the top three; I note, although Fox does not, that the United States is approaching the 20th year of the war on terror, and this is clearly expressed in some students’ selection of majors.

What does American higher ed look like if we extrapolate these trends forward ten years?  Twenty?

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2 Responses to Business and health care up, the humanities sink: higher ed enrollment data

  1. Christopher Davis says:

    I have some insights into the education dip.

    The early 1970s saw a rapid decline in K12 teaching jobs. The baby boomers were out of school. My sister graduated with her ed degree at that time. Also, I used to work at National Louis University (then known as National College of Education). They faced a crisis at this time and created new programs for adults.

    I was at NLU starting in 2008. Education saw a big upswing in the early stages of the recession, as people shifted from business into what they thought would be recession proof careers. As state budgets tanked, teaching positions became in short-supply again.

    The data on education reflects points in time. Education majors are counter-cyclical and also sensitive to demographic transitions.

    As you may also recall, after Enron and the other accounting scandals, business enrollments took a hit. When we look at only two data points, we miss the swings that occur in between.

    Of course the other huge change in this period was the rise of non-traditional students. My experience is that these students are more interested in career-oriented education (business and healthcare). Education is harder to do for working adults because of the student teaching requirements.

    Another blip was 9/11. Following the terrorist attacks, homeland security programs became a hot major. That explains the growth in law enforcement. Sometimes it is not student demand that drives interest but institutional supply selling certain programs.

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