Students pick different majors when the economy is lousy than in good times. That seems intuitively obvious, and can be confirmed by anecdotes. It’s useful to have research exploring just how it works. A recent discussion paper by Erica Blom, Brian C. Cadena, and Benjamin J. Keys (pdf) breaks down which majors students shift to and away from, noting key gender differences.
Here are two visualizations, nicely reformatted from the original article by Josh Zumbrun:
Looking at data from 1960 to 2011, Blom et al find that, generally and unsurprisingly, “graduates pursue more technical, more career-oriented, and more remunerative fields of study in response to temporary periods of weak labor demand.” And “majors associated with higher salaries tend to gain share while majors associated with lower salaries tend to lose share in response to a one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate.” Note that one percentage point. This suggests students are more sensitive to the economy than simpler measures of recession versus good times.
- Beyond STEM, the social sciences seem split, with some doing better and others worse.
- Education gets hit hard. This helps explain why some colleges close education programs when performing a queen sacrifice.
- Medical and allied health do very well in recessions. This feeds into my Health Care Nation scenario.
- There’s an interesting gender difference at a macro level: “women are especially responsive to changes in economic conditions in their choice of college majors.”
- Related: “women are more likely to choose gender-atypical majors during a recession…”
Indeed, this might help mitigate the sexist compensation gap: “this differential responsiveness may reduce the gender gap in affected cohorts…”
- However, there’s a kind of sexism at work here: “students avoid majors with a high share of women (such as Sociology) during recessions. This pattern holds for both male and female students. ” This has implications for gender and science: “This finding is of particular interest for female students given concerns that women likely face barriers to pursuing degrees in male-dominated areas, such as STEM fields.”
- Surprisingly, secessions aren’t good for grad school, at least not for current undergrads: “students tend to move away from majors that typically lead to graduate school… recessions lead to more students choosing majors that are effectively “terminal,” i.e. that lead to careers without additional schooling.”
- There’s an interesting difference in how men and women perceive majors in terms of geographic mobility during a recession. Women are more likely to pick fields that give them opportunities to move: “women are drawn to more geographically mobile majors during recessions, unconditional on labor mar-ket prospects… [but] perhaps surprisingly this mobility does not differentially increase during recessions for men.”
- If these findings are correct, there’s an implication for the discussion about how hard students study. Listen to this:
students are willing to exert more effort during school by selecting more challenging majors during recessions. Majors with the most mathematical rigor and least grade inflation (such as Engineering) are most responsive to the business cycle, a pattern that holds for both men and for women. Thus, recessions appear to alter students’ willingness to pay short-term costs of additional difficulty and effort while in school to obtain majors with these advantages.
More plainly: “The stark responsiveness to the business cycle suggests that many college students, and especially female college students, have sufficient ability to complete more challenging majors, such as STEM fields, yet choose not to do so in periods with stronger labor market prospects.”