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To Ensure an ROI on Their Education, College Students Prioritize Practical Majors and Hard Skills

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Students have become increasingly pragmatic when it comes to choosing and preparing for their careers, a new Forage analysis suggests.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of college students majoring in business, health, and computer science has grown in recent years, while the number of students majoring in humanities, social sciences, history, and education has declined. 

The trend coincides with labor forecasts that predict strong employment growth in health care and computer information technology and tepid growth in the arts, humanities, and social sciences between 2021 and 2031.

“Students place immense value in selecting a major that lends itself to lucrative careers,” says Kendra Millay, Academic Advisor at IvyWise. “Typically, students will look for majors where they can hone hard skills, as opposed to soft skills, that employers are looking for.”

>>MORE: Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills 

Forage has seen this proclivity in action with students on our virtual learning platform favoring programs that teach them a variety of technical skills relevant to jobs in technology and business.

In this analysis, we discuss:

MajorNumber of Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred
Business387,851
Health professions and related programs257,282
Social sciences and history161,164
Engineering128,332
Biological and biomedical sciences126,590
Psychology119,968
Computer and information sciences and support services97,047
Visual and performing arts92,332
Communication, journalism, and related programs91,752
Source: National Center for Education Statistics

According to the NCES, business and health professions and related programs were the most common fields of study in which institutions conferred associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. in 2019-2020, the most recent year this data is available.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

In fact, just six fields of study made up over half of all bachelor’s degrees conferred in those years: business, health professions and related programs, social sciences and history, engineering, biological and biomedical sciences, and psychology. Computer and information sciences was the next most common major after psychology. It made up 4.8% of bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2019-2020.

NCES’s findings square with other forward-looking studies that show students’ interest in these and similar sectors.  

A 2022 National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS) survey of over 11,000 high school and college students, for instance, found that 18% of survey participants are majoring in or intend to major in engineering, 18% in sciences, 16% in business, 16% in health, and 16% in medicine/health services.

Moreover, of U.S. students who enrolled in Forage programs in the past year with anticipated graduation dates between 2023 and 2026, 25.8% of them are majoring in business. In addition, 19.3% are majoring in computer science/information technology (IT), and 13.8% are majoring in finance.

*Students with multiple majors are counted in multiple slices. Source: Forage

What Career Paths Are on the Rise?

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

As shown above, the number of degrees conferred in computer and information sciences increased by 125% between 2010-11 and 2019-20, according to NCES data. The number of bachelor’s degrees in health professions and related programs increased by 80% concurrently.

Meanwhile, bachelor’s degrees conferred in the humanities decreased by 6% between 2010-11 and 2019-20, NCES data show. Bachelor’s degrees in social sciences and history decreased by 9%, while bachelor’s degrees in education decreased by 18.22%. 

“These days, it appears to be less common for a student to choose a major simply because they appreciate or enjoy the discipline,” Millay explains. “They seem to put a lot more emphasis on career preparation and a return on investment.”

Social sciences, arts, and humanities majors appear to be falling out of fashion, according to Millay, despite these majors’ potential to help students develop soft skills, like critical thinking and problem-solving, that are marketable to potential employers. There are also opportunities to learn hard skills in these disciplines, like data analysis for social sciences majors and design software for art majors. Those opportunities may not be as prominent as they are in other majors.

Going Where the Jobs Are

Students’ choices are largely aligned with job market demand.   

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in health care will grow by 13% between 2021 and 2031, resulting in two million new jobs in the field. It also projects that employment in computer and information technology will grow by 15%, adding 682,800 jobs over the decade.

On the other hand, the BLS projects that employment opportunities in the arts, humanities, and social sciences will grow at a much slower rate.

Employment in arts and design jobs, for instance, will grow 2% from 2021 to 2031, which is slower than the average growth rate across all occupations (5%), resulting in only 20,500 new jobs over the decade. During that same timeframe, employment in media and communication will grow 6% (68,600 new jobs). Employment in education, training, and library occupations will grow 7% (658,200 new jobs), slightly above the average. 

Projections for jobs in the social sciences are in a similar range. For instance, between 2021 and 2031, the BLS projects that employment will grow by 6% for anthropologists and archaeologists, 6% for economists, 6% for political scientists, 5% for sociologists, and 4% for historians.

Beyond job growth, the health care and tech industries are home to some of the highest-paying jobs in the U.S. Wages in education, comparatively, have been relatively flat since 1996 when adjusting for inflation. 

Studies have shown that Gen Z workers, in particular, care a lot about salary because they worry about the economy and their financial health.

Why Students Choose Majors

While financial stability and earning potential can no doubt influence students’ career paths, choosing a major remains a complex decision.

Emory University student Elijah Chou is majoring in biology and computer science with an expected graduation date in May of this year. He was pre-med until a year ago and intended to differentiate himself in the medical school application process as a computer science major. 

“I chose to pursue computer science further with the intent of securing a potentially healthy financial future with a much better work-life balance compared to a medical career,” he says. “I ultimately stuck with my two majors because I was almost done with my biology major by the time I decided to switch career paths.”

Stevens Institute of Technology student Catherine DeMario was drawn to the problem-solving aspect of computer science. She decided to major in it after taking two computer science classes during her senior year of high school. She expects to graduate in 2024. 

“I believe that computer science is a versatile field and that my studies have equipped me with a broad set of skills,” she says. “Even if I were to decide that software engineering isn’t right for me, I believe that I would have many other career paths to choose from.”

Montclair State University student Priscilla Ramos is a computer science major pursuing a combined bachelor’s and master’s program in cybersecurity. She expects to graduate in winter of 2024.

While she is pursuing a career in a lucrative, growing industry, Ramos, who’s loved tinkering with electronics since she was little, chose computer science because she is truly passionate about technology.

“I made it a goal of mine to become a role model for younger women wanting to pursue STEM  [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics],” she says. “I never considered any other majors outside of the technology field.”

The major factors students cite regarding their choice of major include interest in the field (57%), career opportunities (46%), and the ability to make a positive impact in the field (41%), according to a 2022 survey from Wiley.

Complex reasoning aside, Forage finds students aren’t only prioritizing lucrative majors and hard skills in the classroom. 

Forage’s virtual experience programs allow students to gain skills directly applicable to their desired career paths. Of all U.S. enrollments in Forage programs in 2022, a whopping 42% were in technology-related programs, while 20.2% were in finance (or business-related) programs; 8.8% of enrollments were in consulting programs, and 6.9% were in marketing.

Source: Forage

Unsurprisingly. the top Forage programs by U.S. enrollments in the past year all fall into the top industries of interest.

The Most Popular Forage Programs

ProgramCompanyIndustry
Omnichannel MarketingLululemonMarketing
Investment BankingJPMorgan ChaseFinance
Software EngineeringJPMorgan ChaseTech
Strategy ConsultingBCGConsulting
Data Analytics and VisualizationAccentureTech
Software EngineeringGoldman SachsTech
Commercial BankingJPMorgan ChaseFinance
Technical Interview PrepGirls Who CodeTech
Data AnalyticsKPMGTech
Source: Forage

Firstly, the JPMorgan Chase Software Engineering, Accenture, Goldman Sachs, and Girls Who Code programs give students the opportunity to learn a variety of skills relevant to various jobs in tech. These skills include software architecture, unit testing, refactoring, cryptography, and data modeling, for example.

JPMorgan Chase’s Investment Banking and Commercial Banking programs promote skills applicable to the finance sector, such as company analysis, presentation, accounting, and spreadsheet skills. Meanwhile, Lululemon’s Omnichannel Marketing program highlights market research, product development, and design thinking skills. BCG’s Strategy Consulting program also teaches market research, as well as skills in financial modeling, business judgment, and stakeholder management.

Interest in the programs suggests students’ desire to familiarize themselves with the key skills they’ll need on the job. In addition, according to a report by ECMC Group, 56% of teenagers believe a skills-based education makes sense in today’s world.

“Students are increasingly indicating that they want more flexible, outcome-oriented programs that will help them get into good jobs in stable careers more quickly,” says Amrit Ahluwalia, senior director of strategic insights at Modern Campus. “So they’re flocking to certificate programs, certification programs, and technical training programs (like coding bootcamps) that promise clear and a specific ROI.” 

Setting up Students for Success

While students may be increasingly focused on hard skills, it’s important to note that soft skills — non-technical skills that describe how you work and interact with others — are also a power tool when it comes to securing a job and succeeding in the workplace. 

In fact, a 2018 report from the Strada Institute for the Future of Work speculated that “uniquely human” skills like leadership, communication, and problem-solving will become more important for the workforce as technical skills that can be automated, like computer programming, become obsolete.

“The liberal arts are teaching high-demand skills that could be transferred from domain to domain, but they do not provide students with enough insight into the pathways available and the practical grounding to acquire before they graduate,” the report states.

Recruiters and hiring managers have also told Forage that they pay careful attention to soft skills, particularly when it comes to hiring early talent, as their companies incorporate more technical skills into their internal training and development programs. 

How to Build In-Demand Skills

In response to student demand, universities and colleges have started rethinking their curricula and majors to ensure students don’t graduate with a skills gap.  

“Some institutions are already responding to these trends by placing an emphasis on developing interdisciplinary programs that bridge STEM with the social sciences, arts, and humanities,” Millay says. She specifically calls out the University of Illinois’ degree in Music and Computer Science as an example. Northeastern University’s dual degree in Cybersecurity and Criminal Justice is another program she mentions. 

“A massive benefit of these interdisciplinary dual degree programs is that students will graduate with the hard and soft skills employers are looking for,” Millay adds.

Students can also look into a minor that complements their major. A minor could enhance their odds of securing a great job in their field of choice.

Furthermore, other ways to build in-demand skills include volunteering, networking, job-shadowing, summer jobs or internships, freelancing, and obtaining career-specific certifications. For instance, if you are interested in project management, you could obtain a Scrum Master certification.

Forage offers a number of free courses on personal and professional development. Check out our Course Catalog to get started. 

Image credit: Depositphotos.com

Jenna Bellassai is the Lead Data Reporter at Forage. She previously was a Senior Data Scientist at Guru, where she transformed and analyzed data to improve search ranking algorithms.