We recently produced an infographic on the fastest-growing academic programs that aren’t meeting employer demand. During our research, we noticed another program (general studies) growing wildly—but it’s impossible to tie this program to specific careers, and thus it didn’t make our original list. Nonetheless, it merits further investigation.
Looking at Emsi data, which comes from the National Center for Education Statistics (IPEDS), general studies degree completions jumped 79% from 2009 to 2014—handily beating the average 19% growth for all programs with at least 10,000 completions. Completions rose from 43,756 in 2009 to over 100,000 in 2014. While 79% growth isn’t spectacular compared to some other programs, it’s impressive that general studies has grown so much in terms of percent when it already has a large completions base. Most other quick-growing programs are tiny by comparison.
More students are choosing general studies degrees than in the past. The growth alone is interesting, but what explains that growth? Why are more students choosing a general studies major?
Surge in General Studies Fueled by Associate Degrees
We can begin to understand why this program has grown so much by looking at the award-level breakdown. Associate degrees made up nearly 80% of all general studies degrees completed in 2014, up from 75% in 2003. In that same time frame, completions for associate-level degrees grew 165%, while bachelor’s-level completions saw only 65% growth.
Bachelor’s degrees made up 14% of all general studies awards in 2014. That number has fallen 7.6 percentage points from 2003-2015, meaning fewer students with general studies majors are choosing bachelor’s degrees.
General Studies Bachelor’s Programs on the Decline
From 2004 to 2009, year-over-year growth of general studies degrees at the bachelor’s level kept pace with associate degree growth. However, since 2010, the growth of bachelor’s-level general studies programs has stayed relatively flat while associate-level degrees are booming.
In 2009-10, associate degree completions grew 11.4%, followed by 18.5% growth in 2010-11. In the same time frame, bachelor’s degree completions in general studies only managed 7.9% and .1% growth, respectively.
The rising cost of tuition likely shares part of the blame for the low growth. A slowly recovering job market and uncompetitive wages also likely play a role. Students know that their degree needs to have a strong return on investment. A bachelor’s in general studies doesn’t have the clear career path that you would find with more specialized degrees, and that’s hard to digest with a pile of student loans to pay off.
Why Get an Associate Degree in General Studies?
Why are fewer students choosing general studies as a major for bachelor’s degrees? What appeals to students about a degree that doesn’t have a clear career path? The high percentage of degrees awarded at the associate level is our first major clue.
It’s possible that these students truly don’t know what they want to do after college–they’re just going to college because it seems like the best thing to do. In this case, colleges and universities need to work harder to help students understand their career options. (Something Emsi helps high schoolers do with Find Your Calling and higher ed institutions do with Career Coach.)
However, the more likely scenario is that students are opting to attend community colleges to save money, then transferring to four-year universities to finish their education. Earning an associate degree at a local community college is much more cost-effective than paying for four years of tuition at local or out-of-state universities.
Recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center shows that the number of transfer students is growing. Compared to the 2014-15 academic year, “the number of graduates who had earned prior awards grew by 12.4 percent” in the 2014-15 academic year. What’s more, students with prior awards made up 21.8% of all undergraduate degree earners in 2014-15.
Another benefit of having an associate degree before applying to a university is that students don’t have to worry much about their high school grades or test scores. With associate degree in hand, most students will find admission to their ideal university easier.
Despite minimal growth in bachelor’s degrees, general studies programs are exploding thanks to associate-level degrees. Many students likely use the general studies program as a springboard into a full, specialized, bachelor’s degree at a four-year university.
If you have insight on the rapid growth of general studies degrees, please feel free to comment below. For more information on this analysis or how you can use Emsi’s labor market data, please contact us. Follow Emsi on Twitter (@DesktopEcon) or check us out on LinkedIn and Facebook.