STEM Up, Pre-Professional Down

Interesting findings about undergraduate enrollment to report, via a study by Jerry Jacobs (sociology, University of Pennsylvania) and Linda Sax (education, UCLA), as reported in Inside Higher Ed:

Jerry Jacobs
Jerry Jacobs – Univ. of Pennsylvania

Using data collected by UCLA, Jacobs and Sax write that from 1997 through 2005, the proportion of freshmen planning to enroll in STEM fields declined, hitting a low in 2005 of 20.7 percent. After modest gains in 2006 and 2007, real increases started to show up in 2008. The percentage of freshmen planning to major in STEM increased from 21.1 percent in 2007 to 28.2 percent in 2011, just as the recession was prompting many students and families to focus on the job potential of various fields of study. That represents a 48 percent increase in just a few years.

Note that Jacobs and Sax use a UCLA survey of freshmen rather than enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which they claim “enables them to spot trends much earlier than is possible with the federal database, since that information is based on graduation (which comes much later than enrollment) and because government cuts have led to delays in federal data.”

Boston Univ. College of Engineering

Of course, the headline here is the growth in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, though most of that growth happened in engineering (57.1%) and biology (28.2%), not math or physical sciences (11-12%).

But what strikes me as equally interesting is their findings related to professional programs:

…the fields showing declines during this period were not traditional liberal arts fields, but applied fields. The paper notes that business and education saw declines of 5.9 percent, suggesting that they — more than the liberal arts — are losing freshmen.

That’s not really the experience where I teach (where business seems to be booming), but it does suggest that smaller universities like ours might want to hesitate in placing strategic priority on pre-professional programs out of a false sense of their seeming, say, more “employable” to students.

(I’ve written previously on the relationship between STEM and the humanities within the larger project of the liberal arts — another theme of the Inside Higher Ed article.)

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