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STEM majors way up, humanities down, among Washington college students, new data show

The University of Washington campus, with Red Square seen in the center, has some of the fastest-growing STEM degree fields in the state. (Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times)
The University of Washington campus, with Red Square seen in the center, has some of the fastest-growing STEM degree fields in the state. (Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times)

For years now, experts have hammered this message home to students: If you want your pricey college degree to pay off, you should major in a STEM field – science, technology, engineering or math.

A fresh release of higher-education data for Washington state shows just how well students have listened.

The information from Washington’s Education Research & Data Center released this month shows that the number of students majoring in STEM disciplines has been growing at a ferocious pace since the end of the recession. (The trend is true nationally, too.)

Meanwhile, humanities and liberal-arts majors – including English, history, philosophy and foreign languages – are languishing.

In 2016-17 – the latest year for which data are available – the number of students majoring in computer science more than tripled. Related fields also saw boom times – the new discipline of informatics went from four graduates in 2012-13 to 190 graduates in 2016-17. (The University of Washington, which offers an informatics program, defines it as “the study, design, and development of information technology for the good of people, organizations, and society.”)

Statewide, 370 students majored in biochemistry, a 75 percent increase from 2007-08. Chemical engineering was up by 77 percent, electrical engineering up 101 percent and mechanical engineering – one of the most popular of the engineering disciplines, with 502 graduates in 2016-17 – was up 132 percent.

On the other hand, it’s been a bad decade for English majors. Their numbers went from 600 in 2007-08 to 381 in 2016-17.

In 10 years, the number of history majors dropped by 41 percent, from 416 to 244. A broad major identified as liberal arts and sciences dropped 21 percent, from more than 1,000 students 10 years ago to 800 students in 2016-17.

The ratio of men to women majoring in STEM hasn’t changed over the past 10 years — it remains at 60:40, with more men than women going into these lucrative fields, ERDC experts say.

In 2013, Ben Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, argued that the media was hyperventilating about the humanities crisis. Last month he posted a mea culpa, writing: “The last five years have been brutal for almost every major in the humanities.”


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