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During recessions, college students pick majors that actually make money

The best way to convince students to pursue STEM fields? A recession.
The best way to convince students to pursue STEM fields? A recession.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Students going to college in a recession pick majors that will get them high-paying jobs right after graduation, a new study published by the Institute for the Study of Labor has found.

Researchers find that these students are more likely to major in subjects that are more challenging, as measured by average GPA, and that require them to take more math. They shun majors that disproportionately enroll women, as well as languages and the social sciences. And they're less likely to select majors that tend to lead students to graduate school.

The researchers — Erica Blom, a consultant with Edgeworth Economics, Brian Cadena of the University of Colorado Boulder, and Benjamin Keys of the University of Chicago — looked at data from the American Community Survey on Americans who turned 20 between 1960 and 2011. They matched up when people were enrolled in college with the business cycle and looked at how their majors changed during those periods.

Although it's impossible to prove that the recession caused their choices, the study, first reported by Inside Higher Ed, found a striking shift in what students studied when they were in college during periods of high unemployment. Every 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate led to a 3.2 percentage point shift in major choices for men and a 4.1 percent percentage point shift for women.

When the economy was bad, students were less likely to major in sociology, education, and literature and languages. Women were most likely to shift into non-finance business majors, followed by nursing:

How women changed their major choices as unemployment increased.

(Institute for the Study of Labor)

And men were most likely to go into engineering:

How men changed their major choices in response to the business cycle.

(Institute for the Study of Labor)

The findings also provide interesting context for an ongoing debate about how to engage more students in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Women in particular are less likely to major in those fields. But they were much more likely to go into engineering and computer science during a recession than they were when the economy was good.

Given that men's enrollment in engineering also increased during recessions, this suggests that there are plenty of students of both genders with the interests and abilities to major in math-heavy fields, given the right circumstances.

The question is how those circumstances can be expanded beyond the pressure of a looming recession.