Faculty Senate discusses trends in Stanford undergraduate majors

At a recent meeting of the Stanford Faculty Senate, Russell Berman, professor of German Studies and of comparative literature, and Brian Cook, a senior assessment and evaluation analyst at the university, discussed the findings in a report called Changes in the Academic Interests of Stanford Undergraduates.

Berman, chair of the senate’s Planning and Policy Board, said the report revealed that the percentage of women and underrepresented minorities majoring in engineering has grown since 1985.

Women comprised about 25 percent of engineering majors in 2016, compared with 10 percent in 1985, the report showed.

Underrepresented minorities comprised 37 percent of engineering majors in 2016, compared with 20 percent in 1985. (The category includes Black/African American, Asian/Asian American, Hispanic and Latino/a, Native American and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students.)

“The report shows how gender and ethnicity is becoming less a predictor of major choice,” said Berman, adding, “That’s a success story.”

The report showed that undergraduate interest in computer science has been cyclical. Over the last 30 years, it peaked in 2002, fell precipitously until 2006, and began rising again in 2009. Now it is the most popular major on campus.

Berman said the report also showed declining interest in social sciences over the last three decades. In 1985, the social sciences accounted for nearly 30 percent of undergraduate degrees. By 2016, that percentage had fallen to 14 percent.

Cook, who co-authored the report, said the distribution of majors appears to be primarily a function of shifting academic interests among incoming students, and less influenced by changes in interests once students arrive on campus and begin taking classes.

“According to forms current freshmen filled out in the summer for their pre-major advisors, more than 50 percent of the current freshman class indicated that they were interested in an engineering major, up from 36 percent in 2007,” said Cook, who works in the office of Institutional Research & Decision Support.

Cook said the university’s Survey of New Students showed that incoming students’ perceptions of employment opportunities appear to play an important role in the rising interest in engineering.

“Eighty-five percent of current freshmen respondents to the survey said that they agreed or strongly agreed that getting a degree in engineering would give them ‘the best chance for employment’ compared to only 19 percent for degrees in the social sciences and just 16 percent for degrees in the humanities,” he said.

Cook said incoming students’ perceptions of their parents’ expectations also seem to play a key role in shaping their academic interests. Receiving a degree in the natural sciences, physical sciences and engineering were the only academic fields that survey respondents tended to agree would be “in line with family expectations.”