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COVID-19’s Impact on Undergraduate Majors: 5 Questions to Ask

by | Apr 27, 2021 | All Topics, Traditional Student Demand

Five Questions: Undergraduate Majors and the Pandemic's Influence

If generations are defined by shared life events, we are witnessing a formative moment shaping a new generation of students; some experts are calling these students “Gen-C.” For higher education, this traumatic moment comes with shifting interests in undergraduate majors.

These shifts raise important questions about what changes in academic preferences were already in progress. What are temporary reactions to the extreme moment? And what might be permanent changes in how high school students view their educational opportunities? Most importantly, how will your institution adjust to fulfill the academic demands of Gen-C?

We’ve analyzed our Admitted Student Research in order to look at the patterns of major choice pre-pandemic, in 2019, and then again mid-pandemic, in 2020. The data helps us see both changes in major interest that were already underway prior to the pandemic, and the possible acceleration of some trends due to its influence (see Figure 1).

 

Change in Academic Major Interest from 2019 to 2020 – Admitted StudentsFigure 1.

 

This shows that the pandemic has had a clear effect on two niche majors that are directly associated with hard-hit industries: aviation/aerospace (-24% growth rate) and culinary arts (-56%). At the moment, students are shying away from pursuing degrees in these areas. Who could blame them? In 2020, jobs in these sectors were evaporating right before their eyes.

There were other findings that also didn’t surprise us; they fit the long-term trends in higher education. For example, health professions, the major drawing the highest level of pre-pandemic interest, also had a 5% growth rate. Perhaps the expansive discussions of health and its human impact made an impression on students who now see career pathways they never imagined before. These majors may proliferate and flourish due to COVID-19.

Similarly, we were not surprised to see that humanities and liberal arts (-12%) and education (-10%) majors declined. Both have been in turmoil for many years. Perhaps students turned toward more “pragmatic” academic areas during this uncertain time. Watching teachers struggle with online learning or enforcing COVID restrictions may not have helped education, in particular. It seems likely that declines in certain majors have been hastened by the pandemic, at least temporarily.

But some stalwart majors are showing steady growth, like business (+ 7%) and computer science (+5%). Some smaller program areas represent intriguing opportunities in more focused programs, like visual and performing arts (+24%), criminal justice (+20%), and environmental science (+17%).

Some of the results, however, are puzzling and deserve more investigation. For example, what is behind the decline in interest in engineering (-7%)? And, which particular programs are driving higher interest in social and behavioral sciences (+8%)?

The Bottom Line

The data in Figure 1 raises a number of important questions about academic programs for this generation of students. While we don’t have all the answers at the moment, these five questions form the basis of our thinking and our research agenda. We hope they stimulate your thoughts about how your undergraduate program portfolio can best speak to the generation of students being minted at this moment:

1. How has the impact of COVID-19 on certain industries in turn impacted student choice of academic programs?

This past year, students shied away from industries that dramatically lost jobs. As those industries recover and reinvent themselves, how will your aligned programs recover and reinvent themselves?

2. How has COVID-19 accelerated or decelerated prior trends in major choice for students?

Even prior to the pandemic, it was a difficult decade for certain majors. One of the prime examples is education. Between 2012 and 2019, an education bachelor’s degree had already fallen by -20%, and the pandemic only served to make a tough job even tougher. That’s another chilling experience for interest in education. What do longstanding downward trending majors have to do to countervail and reinvent in such strong headwinds?

3. Has this year changed the way students think about what their future options might be?

Students have learned in new ways. They have explored new territory in areas like health, race, and social issues by living through these experiences in their close-knit families and digitally-connected communities. These have been extraordinary high school experiences and students will have extraordinary thoughts about their futures because of their experiences.

4. How much of this change will be driven by changing generational norms?

For teenagers who’ve come through the pandemic, there is a new kind of cohesion emerging. While there are certainly ongoing mental health and college access concerns, those students who have made it through will find a new confidence. They’ll more assertively voice their feelings about the future on issues of climate change, health, social justice, public policy, inclusiveness, food systems, etc. How do your programs address these voices?

5. Which changes are temporary, and which might be long-term trends?

Which of your programs are suffering because of short-term factors like direct connections to economically-impacted jobs or the inability to provide critical experiential opportunities? These are likely to come back when COVID-19 wanes. It’s the programs that are on the wrong end of longer-term trends or don’t fit into the generational norms of future students that may not return to prior levels of enrollment. Consider the strategic dimensions of what your undergraduate program portfolio looks like for undergraduates when they are able to fully embrace the college experience.

 

To understand shifting demand among your enrolling and non-enrolling students, participate in Eduventures Admitted Student Research. Deadline for participation is May 24, 2021.

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Kim Reid

Eduventures Principal Analyst at ACT | NRCCUA
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Thursday May 6, 2021 at 2PM ET/1PM CT

After a historic year, the proven and true recruitment strategies used by enrollment offices nationwide have been challenged. With many high school students now harder to find, how can institutions better evaluate the success of their searches and strengthen their engagement strategies for future years?

In this webinar, Eduventures Principal Analyst Kim Reid and ACT | NRCCUA Senior Vice President Clint Chapman will identify what to look for in your funnel right now to improve yield and potential opportunities to strengthen your overall funnel in the years ahead. Sharing research on trends seen throughout institutions this year, we’ll provide practical and effective engagement solutions so that you can meet your students where they are right now, while also building a more sustainable model for the years ahead. 

Additional topics include:

  • Successful funnel strategies and opportunities
  • Methods to improve your current yield
  • Creating messaging that resonates with students and families
  • New methods to engage harder-to-reach students

Pandemic-Proof Your Enrollment Strategy with Admitted Student Research

This recruitment cycle challenged the creativity of enrollment teams as they were forced to recreate the entire enrollment experience online. The challenge for this spring will be getting proximate to admitted students by replicating new-found practices to increase yield through the summer’s extended enrollment cycle.

By participating in the Eduventures Admitted Student Research, your office will gain actionable insights on:

  • Nationwide benchmarks for yield outcomes
  • Changes in the decision-making behaviors of incoming freshmen that impact recruiting
  • Gaps between how your institution was perceived and your actual institution identity
  • Regional and national competitive shifts in the wake of the post-COVID-19 environment
  • Competitiveness of your updated financial aid model

Never Miss Your Wake-Up Call


Learn more about our team of expert research analysts here.