Research has shown that in an economic downturn, students often shift to studying more career-oriented subjects like health sciences or engineering. The 2008 recession confirmed this trend: after remaining stable for the previous decade, from 2008 to 2018 the number of students studying the social sciences and humanities dropped from 29% to 23%. The possible impact of the current economic downturn on student majors is still unknown, says Kevin Stange, associate professor of higher education policy at the Ford School, in a piece in Quartz on May 1.
The interest in studying career-oriented subjects is due in part to students feeling more confident that those majors will allow them to pay back their tuition more quickly than if they major in a subject like the humanities, says Stange.
Whatever the shift in student majors, Stange argues that “this recession is just going to hit higher education just much, much more intensely than we’ve seen in prior recessions.” Loss of revenue from international and out-of-state students may affect budgets, and public universities may be hard hit by state cuts. If large introductory courses are moved online in the fall, that may also affect which subjects students go on to pursue as a major.
Another consideration, Stange notes, is the importance of health sciences in combating the pandemic. Given the heroic actions of healthcare works, students may well be inspired to pursue these fields of study.
“Big things sort of captivate people’s imagination and spirit,” says Stange. “I don’t have any basis for knowing how these things have affected people’s majors. That’s sort of hard to quantify, hard to answer, but that’s some kind of big picture thing that I do wonder.”
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Kevin Stange is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan where he teaches graduate courses in higher education policy, economics, and quantitative methods. He is also a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research and Faculty Affiliate of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education and the Education Policy Initiative, both at University of Michigan.More news from the Ford School