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With a recession and changing world, what are college students studying?

Major Dilemma

   College students today are living in changing times. They don’t know a time before mobile phones. As kids, they saw the Twin Towers crumble, and U.S. troops invade Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of them used their first voting opportunity to usher in the Age of Obama.   
   Some university officials say these changes are making an impact on how students approach college and their eventual life in the working world, perhaps even down to what majors they pursue.   
   Along with some other schools, the University of Chicago reports very little change in the popularity of specific majors over the years. But at other schools, change is in the air.   
At Northwestern University, those declaring a major in learning and organizational change rose 109 percent between 2006 and 2008, says Associate Provost Mike Mills. Over the same period, economics majors rose 18 percent, while social policy rose 13 percent. Mills credits a former U.S. senator from Illinois as a major cause for the shifts. Then-Sen. Barack Obama was Northwestern’s graduation speaker in 2006, and John McCain was the commencement speaker in 2005. “So our students had a unique opportunity to compare and contrast very different points of view concerning the role of government and personal responsibility,” Mills says.   
   “Our students watched the run up to the presidential election very closely,” Mills continues. “And this, I believe, stoked further interest in community organizing and working with and within organizations to promote social change. And of course now our students are watching the Obama administration extend the power and authority of government to intervene in financial markets, provide universal health care coverage, clean up the environment, reach out to the Muslim world,”—all of which further inspires students to think about government careers and civil service.   
   Leaders at Loyola University are seeing a similar shift among students.   
   “The non-profit sector is very hot,” as is health care, in terms of where students want to land post-graduation, says Rose Ann Pastor, Loyola’s director of Career Management Services. However, it isn’t necessarily changing which academic majors students pursue.     
   Instead, students are investigating how they can apply their majors to the work environment that interests them. For example, someone might get a degree in accounting or finance with the intention of working at an organization focused more on public improvement rather than personal profits, Pastor says.  
   “This generation—they are much more altruistic,” she says, adding that students today seem to put a strong value on life balance, community improvement and flexibility. “They look back to those events of 9/11, and they’re looking to have a better life. It’s not all about work.”   
   That said, someone has to pay the bills. And going to school during a time of economic instability does seem to spark an instant reality check, education leaders say.   
   Across schools in Illinois and nationally, students are using more of their school’s career guidance resources when determining a college major.  
   “Students just want to validate what they’re thinking of doing, getting a pulse of what’s going on,” Pastor says. “We’re hearing and seeing that regardless of what you’re interested in, having a background in business is helpful.”    
   Advisors at several area schools said they are seeing an increase in the number of students seeking multiple majors in their college study. Being able to list two or more majors on a resume may lead to broader career options, says Lonnie Dunlap, executive director of University Career Services at Northwestern University.   
   But even the best plans change. Studies show that roughly half of college graduates work in a field outside of their major within five years of college graduation.   
   To be sure, even if the economy hasn’t modified a student’s choice in what they study, it has figured for many into other college-related decisions.   
   According to a study released in June by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, about 70 percent of high schools reported an increase in the number of students who felt the need to modify their ambitions and choose more affordable options over their “dream schools.” The study also revealed that 45 percent of colleges reported a decrease in the number of students accepting admission offers, also known as yield rates in the admission office, compared to 2008. Only 15 percent of respondents indicated an increase in the number of students planning to delay postsecondary education for financial reasons.

Published: August 09, 2009
Issue: Fall 2009 Water Issue