Study: Business Major Remains Most Popular, Even If Its Share of Students Is Smaller Than 30 Years Ago

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Business degrees have long been a popular choice for students, and it’s a trend that still holds true today, even if the margin by which they hold the top spot is decreasing.

Thirty years ago during the 1990-91 school year, 22.8% of students who received bachelor’s degrees were business majors. That percentage dropped to 19.4% in 2018-19 — the latest period for which data is available.

However, the number of business majors within this period grew by 56.8%, according to the latest study from Student Loan Hero. Our researchers looked at nearly 30 bachelor’s degrees over a 30-year period to look for trends along the way. Here’s what they discovered.

Key findings

  • During the 2018-19 school year, nearly 1 in 5 bachelor’s degree graduates were business majors, tops among the 29 fields of study that were examined. The next most-popular majors were health professions and related programs (12.5% share of students) and social sciences and history (8%).
  • Looking back 30 years to the 1990-91 school year, business was the top major then, too, with a higher share of students. In that time, 22.8% of bachelor’s degree graduates were business majors. Up next were social sciences (11.4%) and education (10.1%).
  • College business departments have seen a surge in students in the past 30 years. Despite business majors now making up a smaller share of bachelor’s degree graduates, there are 56.8% more students in the field of study than in 1990-91. Many other majors have seen substantial growth in this period, including parks, recreation, leisure and fitness studies, with a 1,141% rise in the number of students in the same period.
  • The computer and information sciences major saw the largest percentage growth in the number of students between the two latest available periods — 2017-18 and 2018-19. The number of students in the major jumped 11.4% between the two periods.

Most popular (and least popular) majors in 2018-19

Nearly 20% of bachelor’s degree graduates were business majors in 2018-19 — the latest available data.

The top three majors suggest no particular discipline is disproportionately popular for students. However, rounding out the top five are engineering and biological and biomedical sciences, specialities that are STEM-focused.

Part of this trend could be an increased focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education among young students (and young women in particular).

And in an era of record-breaking initial public offerings (IPOs) and unicorn startups, rosy business prospects in the technology sector could be enough to keep the popularity of business degrees high while also driving interest in technology and science-based degrees.

A closer look at the top 3 majors

To give context, here are some core categories of study within the three most popular majors, as well as some majors within those fields.

Business

  • Business administration, management and operations (retail management, organizational leadership)
  • Accounting and related services (auditing, accounting and finance)
  • Finance and financial management services (public finance, credit management)
  • Hospitality administration/management (resort management, meeting and event planning)
  • Marketing (marketing research, international marketing)

Health professions

  • Communication disorders sciences and services (audiology/audiologist, speech-language pathology/pathologist)
  • Medicine (osteopathic medicine/osteopathy, podiatric medicine/podiatry)
  • Mental and social health services and allied professions (substance abuse/addiction counseling, marriage and family therapy/counseling)
  • Pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences and administration (pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences)
  • Public health (environmental health, maternal and child health)

Social sciences and history

  • Anthropology (physical anthropology, medical anthropology)
  • Criminology
  • Economics (applied economics, international economics)
  • Political science and government (American government and politics, political economy)
  • Urban studies/affairs

The least popular majors in 2018-19 were:

  • Legal professions and studies: 0.2% share of students
  • Communications technologies: 0.2%
  • Transportation and materials moving: 0.3%

These majors tend to be highly technical. For example, the legal professions and studies major includes legal studies, law and more. It could be the case that students interested in law, for example, would prefer a social sciences degree that more easily lends itself to building upon with a master’s degree. Conversely, students interested in a legal support role might prefer to take paralegal training, which doesn’t always involve a degree.

Another reason could be the high cost of a law degree.

“It could be that more students are reluctant to take on the eventual cost of attending law school after their undergraduate program,” said Andrew Pentis, Student Loan Hero senior writer for student loans.

He cited a past Student Loan Hero study, which found that graduates were leaving campus with an average law school debt of $111,752. But it’s worth noting that Generation Zers still view law school as a reasonable career path, according to a more recent Student Loan Hero survey.

In terms of technicality, communications technologies majors focus on training students to become equipment operators and support technicians, while transportation and materials moving majors focus on helping students acquire the technical knowledge needed to move people and materials.

In these fields and others, students may prefer to complete a certificate or diploma program that could swiftly prepare them for the workforce, rather than a liberal arts degree that involves more courses.

Most popular (and least popular) majors in 1990-91

Now, let’s take it back 30 years. Business was tops — again. Social science and history was the second most popular, while education (the 10th most popular major in 2018-19) was the third most popular choice in 1990-91.

In the early 1990s, educational degrees were among the most popular. This could be caused, in part, by a sharp increase in teacher wages in the 1980s. National Center for Education Statistics data shows an increase of more than $10,000 in teacher salaries between 1979-80 and 1989-90, wage growth even more significant in a time of economic recession. It makes sense that students at the start of the decade gravitated to the perceived stability of a degree in education.

Again, technical degrees were among the least popular with students. Transportation and materials moving and legal professions and studies each had just a 0.2% share of graduates, while communications technologies was the least popular major with just 0.1% of students.

Comparing 1990-91 to 2018-19 by share of students

One trend that’s been consistent over the last 30 years is the popularity of business programs. In both 1990-91 and 2018-19, business was the top choice, with a share of 22.8% and 19.4% of students, respectively.

Earning the distinction as the biggest mover in the 30-year period we examined was the parks, recreation, leisure and fitness studies major, at 584.9%. Also notable is the increased popularity of health professions: Its rise in share of students between 1990-91 — when it was the fifth most popular choice — and 2018-19 — when it was second — was 128.5%.

While the parks, recreation, leisure and fitness degree shares a part of its name with a TV show that’s reached cult status, the rise in popularity could be attributed to the growing interest in personal fitness programs and an increased emphasis on community health.

The degree encompasses instructional programs that focus on teaching students how to manage recreational and fitness facilities and provide recreational and fitness services, as well as the study of human kinesiology and fitness.

Meanwhile, education saw the biggest drop, with its share of students falling 58.5% between 1990-91 and 2018-19. In many states, a degree in education isn’t necessary to obtain a teaching license. It could be plausible that students are more likely to major in subject matters that will be relevant to what they’re teaching, without wanting to incur the cost of a major specifically related to education.

Comparing 1990-91 to 2018-19 by number of students

Major popularity isn’t the only way to compare the two school years. Don’t forget to look at the total number of students, too. For example, business majors make up a smaller share but have seen a 56.8% increase in students.

Why does business continue to hold its edge?

“One characteristic of the college campus that has largely gone unchanged is that it can be a bustling laboratory for new businesses ideas,” Pentis said. “Students with an entrepreneurial spirit have long chosen to major in business as a way of collaborating with like-minded students, learning from professors and mentors and testing their ideas on classmates.”

A business major, he added, is also a feeder into a variety of high-paying careers, making it easier to repay federal or private student loans — though attending a postgraduate MBA program could add to the student loan burden.

And by looking at the number of students rather than the share of graduates, the increase in students majoring in health professions looks even more substantial. Remember, it was the second most popular major in 2018-19 — and it’s seen a 319.8% increase in the number of students since 1990-91.

This also puts the number of students in social sciences and history into perspective. This degree had the third-largest share of students in 2018-19, but the data shows it’s seen just a 28.4% increase — toward the bottom of the list — in the number of students since 1990-91. This could be because as the cost of postsecondary education rises, students are looking for jobs that have a clearer pathway to high-earning careers.

Computer and information sciences major has seen biggest gains since 2017-18

How have trends regarding popular majors changed more recently? To understand this, let’s compare the number of students enrolled in these majors in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Of note are computer and information sciences majors, which saw the biggest gain at 11.4%.

The other big risers were communications technologies (5%) and engineering technologies (4.8%).

“In all likelihood, students and their families are seeing these majors as leading to careers of the future,” Pentis said. “To study technology, after all, is to study the future. For students who want to ensure their education leads to a stable career with consistent growth in the field, studying tech is a no-brainer.”

He said he hopes families are also using tools like the Department of Education’s College Scorecard and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ wealth of information to make a career plan that sees their student work in a satisfying position — and helps them to repay student loan debt.


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