The Business of College Majors is Business

I looked at the distribution of college majors recently, with this question in mind: does the ordinary experience of most undergraduates reflect the left-leaning slant of American college faculty? Do students, on average, encounter faculty who are more conservative than the typical faculty member?

The question arises from the suspicion that students can be isolated in conservative ideological bubbles, hiding in plain sight within a larger institutional context that skews left.  Scratching around that question, I found an enormous amount of longitudinal data on college majors.

You can find analytical support for a lot of important questions in these data. A good source can be found here, and some brilliant data visualizations from Prof. Benjamin Schmidt at Northeastern University. In my simple graph, I want to make one point: most U.S. undergraduates choose a major with a vocational emphasis, and these kinds of majors constitute the entirety of the increase of undergraduates since 1971.

I start with the list of 33 majors that appear on the National Center for Education Statistics report summarizing bachelor’s degrees since 1971. The first thing to notice is the popularity of business degrees, which has held around 22% since the 1980’s. Also notice the category “Health professions and related programs”, which has grown from 3% to 9%.

I lump these categories into a group “occupations”. I also included smaller categories such as communication and journalism, law enforcement, and visual and performing arts. Not included are science and engineering, which seems strange at first because we tend to think their job potential exceeds everything on this list. We could include them without diminishing the effect visible in the graphs. The other groups are: liberal arts, science, social science, and other.

Here are three time series plots.  First, the annual breakdowns of the absolute number of graduates (from four year colleges) by group.


This series shows the percentages of total graph.  The rise we see in absolute numbers disappears, but occupational majors still capture more than half of all degrees


This graph compares majors to the U.S. population.  The graph shows a more extreme effect in recent years of the growth of occupational majors.



We could fiddle with these groupings on Ben’s interactive graphing tools, but here’s my takeaway:

1. Occupational majors dominate choices of majors in American colleges, and the dominance is increasing.
2. All other groups are relatively flat by comparison.
3. The effect isn’t quite as visible when you just look at the percentages of all majors. A better way to think of it: there are more people attending four-year colleges, and the increase is primarily an artifact of occupational majors.

R source files and NCES spreadsheet found here.