For years now, experts have hammered this message home to students: If you want your pricey college degree to pay off, you should major in a STEM field — science, technology, engineering or math.
A fresh release of higher-education data for Washington state shows just how well students have listened.
The information from Washington's Education Research & Data Center released this month shows that the number of students majoring in STEM disciplines has been growing at a ferocious pace since the end of the recession. (The trend is true nationally, too.)
Meanwhile, humanities and liberal-arts majors — including English, history, philosophy and foreign languages — are languishing.
In 2016-17 — the latest year for which data are available — the number of students majoring in computer science more than tripled. Related fields also saw boom times — the new discipline of informatics went from four graduates in 2012-13 to 190 graduates in 2016-17. (The University of Washington, which offers an informatics program, defines it as "the study, design, and development of information technology for the good of people, organizations, and society.")
Statewide, 370 students majored in biochemistry, a 75 percent increase from 2007-08. Chemical engineering was up by 77 percent, electrical engineering up 101 percent and mechanical engineering — one of the most popular of the engineering disciplines, with 502 graduates in 2016-17 — was up 132 percent.
On the other hand, it’s been a bad decade for English majors. Their numbers went from 600 in 2007-08 to 381 in 2016-17.
In 10 years, the number of history majors dropped by 41 percent, from 416 to 244. A broad major identified as liberal arts and sciences dropped 21 percent, from more than 1,000 students 10 years ago to 800 students in 2016-17.
The ratio of men to women majoring in STEM hasn't changed over the past 10 years — it remains at 60:40, with more men than women going into these lucrative fields, ERDC experts say.
In 2013, Ben Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, argued that the media was hyperventilating about the humanities crisis. Last month he posted a mea culpa, writing: "The last five years have been brutal for almost every major in the humanities."
Here are some other interesting trends from the new data:
- In the past 10 years, the number of Hispanic/Latino students earning an undergraduate degree has doubled — from 4.6 percent of all undergraduate degree earners in 2007-08 to 9.4 percent in 2016-17. Their representation among STEM degree earners also doubled in the same time period.
- In 2016-2017, for the first time in 10 years, there was a slight decline in the number of undergraduates coming here from China. However, the number of Chinese graduate students increased. Most students from China attend the University of Washington.
- There's been a modest increase overall in the number of Washington resident students enrolled as undergraduates in a four-year public university — from 84,954 students in 2007-08 to 92,987 students in 2016-17, an increase of about 9 percent. This happened during a time of population growth for the state overall. Between 2007 and 2016, the number of Washington public-school students graduating from high school grew by about 6 percent, according to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, which keeps track of high-school graduates in its annual report, "Knocking at the College Door."