Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Great Recession continues to drive major choices

Long-term impacts of economic downturn steers students into STEM, away from humanities
Gabe Germain
The number of University of Wisconsin students graduating with humanities degrees is decreasing. April 21, 2024.

In the last two decades, the University of Wisconsin has seen a shift in the leading majors of undergraduates, according to data from UW’s Repository of Administrative Data and Reports. From the 2008–09 academic year to 2019-20, computer science surpassed economics as the university’s most popular major, according to RADAR. The change marked a 623% increase in computer science majors from 2008–09. 

This comes during a surge in the popularity of economics, with the major seeing a 85% increase in the number of students graduating with a degree in economics since the 2007–08 academic year, according to RADAR. 

Also contributing to this trend is the data science major, which has emerged as UW’s fastest growing major. Created in the 2021–22 academic year, data science is already more popular than historically popular degrees, such as English, math, history and mechanical engineering, according to RADAR.


Amidst this growth in STEM majors, fewer students today are graduating from UW with humanities degrees — especially in history and English — than were in the mid-2000s, a trend that is reflected across higher education in the U.S., according to RADAR.

In the 2022-23 academic year, UW awarded 1,810 more bachelor’s degrees than they did in the 2007-08 academic year, an increase of nearly 30%. But over that same period, the number of students graduating with degrees in history, English and political science decreased by 61%, 59% and 35%, respectively.

One likely cause of fewer humanities majors is the financial insecurity caused by the financial crisis of 2008-09, according to UW Associate Chair of History Patrick Iber. 

“One of the places that you can clearly see a big change is after the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009,” Iber said. “With the amount of economic uncertainty that people faced for many years after that, there was interest from students — and I also think pressure from parents — to choose degrees that would immediately pay for themselves.”

Iber’s analysis is corroborated both by trends in major selection in popular humanities at UW and by peer-reviewed research.

Many universities have also hiked tuition fees in response to greater demand for enrollment and less state funding in the aftermath of the Great Recession, according to The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social ScienceTuition increases at public four-year institutions between 2008-09 and 2009-10 were a sharp 9.3% — compared to 6.6% in 2006-07 — and continued to outpace the rate of inflation in the years following the Great Recession.

This resulted in an especially large increase in the sticker price of public flagship universities, which, much like private universities, are likely to draw students with a reasonably high capacity to pay, according to The Annals of the American Academy and Social Science and The College Board.

UW’s $28,916 sticker price — which has increased 89.5% since 2004-05, outpacing inflation by $4,190 — might now be triggering the same kind of cost-benefit analysis that pushed students out of the humanities in the years following the Great Recession, according to UW professor of educational studies Taylor Odle.

“People are so much more in tune with and worried about ROI [return on investment] than they were in previous years, because coming to college today costs more than it cost previously,” Odle said. “Even though what I would say is, it actually doesn’t cost more.”

Odle said that while UW’s sticker price has been accelerating beyond the rate of inflation, the average net cost of attendance has been declining in recent years, and was just $13,376 in 2021-22, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Educational Statistics

Nevertheless, more students are choosing to major in computer science, data science and economics than ever before, and these graduates are enjoying high earnings not long after graduating.

The median annual earnings for UW graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer and information sciences is $97,595 four years after graduation, while the median earnings for graduates with bachelor’s degrees in history and English four years after graduation are just $54,182 and $47,090, respectively, according to the U.S. Department of Education

But, given 42% of humanities majors go on to earn advanced degrees, according to Inside Higher Ed, measuring median earnings just four years after graduation from UW fails to account for the high earnings associated with some humanities careers in the long run. Instead, median earnings after four years indicate the streamlined path toward high earnings to which many STEM graduates have access. 

It is also possible some of the declining interest in the humanities is cultural, according to The Cornell Diplomat. There is a “prestige hierarchy” between different majors, with humanities second from the bottom, only above art. Though this hierarchy is weakly correlated with earnings, other factors, including curricular changes and the perception that qualitative fields are less rigorous are also to blame, according to The Cornell Diplomat.

The emphasis on workforce preparation, and thus earnings out of college, realizes only one of the obligations of a public university and fails to account for the other great obligation of state universities — cultivation of the skills that allow people to engage with questions of life and citizenship in powerful ways long after graduating, according to Iber. At UW, majoring in the humanities provides both, Iber said.

“What I would want is for the people who want to major in history to feel confident that they’re doing both things — that they’re preparing themselves as citizens but also preparing themselves for rewarding careers,” Iber said.

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