Recession Spurred Enrollments in STEM Fields, Study Finds

Report: “STEM Majors, the Liberal Arts, and the Great Recession” (report not yet available online)

Authors: Jerry A. Jacobs, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania; and Linda J. Sax, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles

Organizations: University of Pennsylvania; University of California at Los Angeles; presented at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting

Summary: The researchers analyzed data on students’ anticipated major from 2007 to 2011, as captured by the Freshman Survey of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, a national longitudinal study administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. The data are a leading indicator of degrees awarded. Results were compared with enrollment figures provided by the American Society for Engineering Education.


  • Since 2007, the onset of the Great Recession, interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM majors, has increased sharply in two fields: engineering and biology.
  • Growth in engineering was greatest, at 57.1 percent, followed by biology, at 28.2 percent.
  • Upticks were smaller for other STEM fields: 11.1 percent in the physical sciences, 12.6 percent in mathematics, and stagnation in computer science.
  • The number of anticipated majors in biology and engineering increased among both men and women.
  • Growth in the number of students planning to major in engineering is also seen in rising enrollments in colleges of engineering, which have grown 29 percent. The mean enrollment increase was 540 students.
  • The 6.7-percentage-point increase in engineering and biology majors was nearly offset by a 5.9-percentage-point decline in business and education majors. In other words, the growth did not come at the expense of the humanities and social sciences.

Bottom Line: The growth in planned majors in biology and engineering helps but does not fully answer concerns about future work-force shortages in the STEM fields, and the recent increases will probably ebb as the economy improves. Discussion of STEM fields should also be careful to acknowledge differences between disciplines, as enrollment patterns and labor conditions vary.

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