The 2008 recession completely changed what students majored in. Will coronavirus?

Michelle Cheng:

The Great Recession led to big changes in what US college students chose to study. The downturn, which started in 2008, led a shift towards more job-oriented majors, at the expense of the humanities and social sciences. After remaining relatively stable over the previous decade, the share of all students majoring in the humanities or the social sciences dropped from 29% in 2008 to 23% in 2018. Researchshows that students often shift towards more career-oriented degrees when the job market is not looking good.

If this economic slowdown follows past ones, higher education policy economists and experts say there could be another push towards majors—e.g. engineering, finance, economics, and nursing—that lead to higher-paying, stable jobs.

Since the Great Recession, the fastest-growing fields of study have been health sciences professions and related programs, natural sciences and mathematics, and computer science and engineering. Health professions jumped from 7% of all US majors in 2008 to 12% in 2018.  Meanwhile, computer science jumped from 8% to 11%.

“There will be some students changing their major going forward, and part of that is going to kind of develop over the next several months in terms of what we see happening,” says Brad Hershbein, economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. And even if students don’t change majors, they may add a second major, a minor, or coursework grounded in these job-oriented fields.

The interest 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 Kevin Stange, associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.