Major Choices

When thinking about the future of the country, many people say “Think of the children!” but fewer people wonder what those children are thinking.  Looking at the chosen majors of today’s graduates is one way to measure what America’s children are thinking.  Even better, their revealed preference is probably more trustworthy than surveys.

Source: US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics

The biggest thing that stands out is the increased focus on the practical.

  1. Business majors are up while social science and history majors are down.
  2. Engineering technology, which prepares graduates for a job right out of school, is up while engineering majors are down. 
  3. Students have decided that they need majors for jobs that used to be done by high school graduates as they are getting more degrees in transportation, securities and protective services as well as materials moving as well as parks, recreation, leisure and fitness studies. 
  4. Education majors have shrunk, but this is probably due to cultural changes that allow women more choices when it comes to their field of study. 
  5. Students also see the increased demand for health services in their future and have gone into biology, psychology and health professions and related clinical sciences at increasing rates. 
  6. Computer science majors have increased with the emergence of personal computers. It should be noted that this major actually peaked at 4.5% of college graduates in 2003-04 with the class of students who picked their major at the height of the internet bubble.  The recent drop off in CS of 1.5% of all students choosing other majors almost exactly matches the additional 1.4% of college students choosing to major in health professions and related clinical sciences between the 2003-04 year and the 2006-07 year.

For those worried about a decline in the quantitative focus of students, the shortfall of quantitative majors is only 1.25% of the student population compared to 1970, and this number completely disappears if it is assumed that half the double majors are doing something quantitative or a fraction of the business majors are learning about statistics.  Of course, the college graduate situation only looks good when comparing the United States to a past version of the United States.  What is worrisome about the education picture to many people is the declining relative position of the United States compared to other counties and that will be covered in a future post.

2 responses
Compare the US to other countries or elite schools in the US to elite schools in other countries. Lots of developing countries simply have so much lower standards for their non-elite schools that their quantitative majors don't mean anything.

I don't think any non-negligible fraction of business majors learns any real stat. Among MBAs it might be under 20%.

Honestly, 60% of Americans go to college. Assuming that an IQ of 120 is needed to get much out of a quantitative major the numbers in that chart indicate to me that we are doing fairly well in utilizing human cognitive capital.

While it is true that their colleges are generally lower quality, when the average IQ in some of those developing countries is greater than 100 it isn't clear that their quantitative graduates mean nothing. Furthermore, the foreign PhDs that the US trains and then deports if the graduates can't find very specific types of work to get on a path to a green card doesn't help its relative position.