Humanities or STEM? Looking at the Most Popular Majors for US Students

Author Virginia Postrel, in a widely circulated column last week for Bloomberg View, goes right at those who think the US needs more career-minded students. Just look at national education stats, she writes. Most Americans are already choosing a college major based on the prospects of landing a job upon graduation. And if the supply of “practical” workers increases, Postrel warns that the quality of the workforce will deteriorate and wages will be lower (on this point, she linked to EMSI’s analysis on the oversupply of lawyers).

While government subsidies may indeed distort the choice to go to college in the first place, it’s simply not the case that students are blissfully ignoring the job market in choosing majors. Contrary to what critics imagine, most Americans in fact go to college for what they believe to be “skill-based education.”

A quarter of them study business, by far the most popular field, and 16 percent major in one of the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Throw in economics, and you have nearly half of all graduates studying the only subjects such contemptuous pundits recognize as respectable.

Postrel makes a number of valuable points in her column, but two issues should be noted with the data she used. First, the study she cited — from the National Center for Education Statistics’ report entitled “2008-09 Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study” (PDF here) — looked at graduates from the 2007-08 academic year. The economy and employment prospects related to certain programs have changed drastically since then. And second, the report includes only bachelor’s degree recipients.

With these points in mind, we tapped into the NCES database to get a more recent and thorough picture of the most popular programs areas for recent US grads. What follows is the total number of degrees given out in 2010 (the most recent year available from NCES) at the associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate level among major program categories. We also give 2003 totals and percentages to provide a benchmark.

Our analysis includes degrees at the four main postsecondary levels mentioned above, not certificates or postsecondary awards. We did this to better reflect graduates who have made a more-than-one-year investment in education and have therefore given their decision serious thought.

A few noteworthy items:

  • Humanities majors account for 12% of graduates in the study Postrel used; according NCES’ latest data, which uses slightly different program classifications, 9.6% of all degrees came in liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities. One reason for the lower percentage could be that we included associate’s degrees (as well as bachelor’s, master, and doctorate degrees) in our analysis and the NCES study looked only at bachelor’s degreeholders.
  • Business, management, marketing and related programs make up the largest percentage of 2003 and 2010 degree recipients, just under 20% in both years. Postrel said a quarter of all degrees came in business (per the NCES study, it’s 23%).
  • Health professions and related programs made the biggest jump among major program categories — from 9.2% of all degree recipients in 2003 to 12.7% in 2010–and now stands No. 2 overall. The biggest reason for this has been the dramatic increase in registered nursing/LPN and medical assistant degrees (see more on the RN debate).
  • As a proportion of all degrees, computer and information sciences took the biggest hit — from 4.6% (127,088) in 2003 to 2.7% (94,730) in 2010.
Program Category 2003 Degrees Percentage 2010 Degrees Percentage
Source: National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS
Business, Management, Marketing, And Related Support Services 543,425 19.8% 688,946 19.7%
Health Professions And Related Programs 252,034 9.2% 443,642 12.7%
Liberal Arts And Sciences, General Studies And Humanities 264,807 9.6% 337,698 9.6%
Education 280,563 10.2% 320,866 9.2%
Social Sciences 147,330 5.4% 183,229 5.2%
Psychology 107,537 3.9% 139,519 4.0%
Visual And Performing Arts 111,240 4.0% 132,898 3.8%
Engineering 100,550 3.7% 120,851 3.5%
Biological And Biomedical Sciences 78,223 2.8% 111,231 3.2%
Communication, Journalism, And Related Programs 79,735 2.9% 96,031 2.7%
Computer And Information Sciences And Support Services 127,088 4.6% 94,730 2.7%
Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting And Related Protective Services 51,113 1.9% 91,761 2.6%
English Language And Literature/Letters 66,449 2.4% 69,091 2.0%
Public Administration And Social Service Professions 51,141 1.9% 68,042 1.9%
Legal Professions And Studies 55,245 2.0% 65,410 1.9%
Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies 46,870 1.7% 64,480 1.8%
Engineering Technologies And Engineering-Related Fields 59,824 2.2% 54,834 1.6%
History 34,009 1.2% 43,982 1.3%
Parks, Recreation, Leisure, And Fitness Studies 25,977 0.9% 42,127 1.2%
Physical Sciences 29,803 1.1% 38,643 1.1%
Foreign Languages, Literatures, And Linguistics 28,438 1.0% 36,417 1.0%
Family And Consumer Sciences/Human Sciences 29,704 1.1% 34,815 1.0%
Theology And Religious Vocations 24,278 0.9% 26,713 0.8%
Mathematics And Statistics 19,475 0.7% 26,697 0.8%
Agriculture, Agriculture Operations, And Related Sciences 22,609 0.8% 23,442 0.7%
Mechanic And Repair Technologies/Technicians 15,169 0.6% 19,787 0.6%
Philosophy And Religious Studies 15,258 0.6% 18,683 0.5%
Architecture And Related Services 14,693 0.5% 18,300 0.5%
Personal And Culinary Services 13,157 0.5% 17,519 0.5%
Natural Resources And Conservation 13,692 0.5% 16,575 0.5%
Area, Ethnic, Cultural, Gender, And Group Studies 10,273 0.4% 13,459 0.4%
Communications Technologies/Technicians And Support Services 6,485 0.2% 10,877 0.3%
Transportation And Materials Moving 7,729 0.3% 8,933 0.3%
Library Science 5,566 0.2% 7,766 0.2%
Construction Trades 3,183 0.1% 4,912 0.1%
Precision Production 2,342 0.1% 2,865 0.1%
Military Technologies And Applied Sciences 1,114 0.04% 2,262 0.1%
Science Technologies/Technicians 1,432 0.1% 2,229 0.1%
2,747,560 3,500,262

These stats point to a few telling short-term shifts. Yes, a significant number of all degree recipients have moved toward skill-based education. But more striking is the decline in STEM majors, who typically make higher wages than non-STEM majors, as a share of all graduates. Postrell calls public policy that pushes students into STEM fields “as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or ‘green’ industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise. It misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future.”

If you were wondering, STEM-related majors (defined using this NCES report as a guideline)1 accounted for 19% of all degrees in 2010, down from 21% in 2003. The number of STEM degrees increased 12% in that time, meaning that while more students are getting a STEM education, even more are graduating in non-STEM fields.

Postrel would prefer students not be pigeonholed into learning one specific skill, and that seems wise — particularly after reading about what happens when states pay to train for jobs that disappear. Nonetheless, it’s worth mentioning only 35% of Americans 25 and older have an associate’s, bachelor’s, or advanced degree, a tad higher than the 33% that held degrees in 2003. Given the compelling data showing that a college degree is worth the investment, this percentage should be higher — regardless if it comes by increasing STEM or humanities majors.

Data for this post comes from Analyst, EMSI’s web-based labor market data and analysis tool. For more information, contact Josh Wright ( us on Twitter @DesktopEcon

Illustration by Mark Beauchamp.

  1. Our STEM definition includes the following program categories: engineering, biological sciences, computer and information sciences; engineering technologies; physical sciences; mathematics and statistics; agriculture, agricultural operations and related sciences; science technologies/technicians; and social sciences.

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