College Students’ Desired Fields of Study

Each fall, as a new class of freshmen head off to colleges and universities, incoming students are surveyed to find out information on their backgrounds and aims. Educational research organizations conduct these surveys and attempt to maintain the same questions over decades so that comparative data can be traced over time and analyzed.  The results of these studies are often very revealing.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on this year’s survey results. An interactive feature allows viewers to examine the responses to individual questions.

One of the interesting questions asks incoming students to indicate their intended field of study. These are defined in broad groupings rather than by individual departments or disciplines: Arts and Humanities, Business, Education, Engineering, Health Professions, Mathematics or Computer Science, Physical and Life Sciences, Social Sciences, Other and Undecided.


The results for the question on intended fields of study are on the Chronicle of Higher Education.

This way of organizing disciplines is highly problematic. Many of the Humanities are closely allied with Social Sciences, rather than Arts. History, Anthropology, and Sociology are sometimes considered Humanities and other times considered Social Sciences. Physical and Life Sciences, Social Sciences, Mathematics, and Humanities would all typically be grouped together in a College of Liberal Arts. Computer Science is sometimes included within a College of Liberal Arts, but sometimes located elsewhere. At universities, Arts would typically be placed within a College of Fine Arts or Performing Arts. Students who enter colleges and universities as undecided majors are often effectively placed in the College of Liberal Arts with a designation of Liberal Arts-Undecided.

Despite these problems with the study, the results are intriguing. Some fields show remarkable stability over the past three to four decades: Arts and Humanities have been the choice of about 12-13 percent of incoming freshmen since the early 1970s. Health Professions have remained steady at approximately 14% of incoming students over the past four decades. Mathematics and Computer Sciences have been the choice of a mere 2-4 percent of freshmen most years. Social Studies have been level at approximately 12-14 percent of freshmen. Engineering students have hovered around 10 percent ever since the late 1970s. The Other and Undecided students have been in the range of 12-14.5 percent most years.

Physical and Life Sciences have varied widely from as low as 6 percent to as high as 15 percent. Education has also varied, falling off from approximately 11 percent in 2000 to 5.7 percent in 2012.

Other fields have clearly lost significance. Business declined from a highpoint as the choice of 25.7 percent of freshmen in 1987 to 14.4 percent in 2012.

Higher education administrators should investigate whether or not funding priorities and department budgets match students’ choices of field of study. I suspect not.

This entry was posted in Education Policy, Humanities Education, Undergraduate Work in History. Bookmark the permalink.

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