This post was written by Brian Crandall, who runs “Ithacating in Cornell Heights.”

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As always, all data is taken from the Cornell University Factbook. Numbers used in this entry are for undergraduate enrollments.

Offhand, I can think of two mantras when it comes to first-tier higher education:
– Go into a STEM field.

– If you’re at a really good school for undergrad (Ivy plus), go for business.

The logic in both is fairly sound. STEM fields are in demand and pay well (and as someone in a STEM position, I say that with a very big asterisk). The other is that our most brilliant minds can get the most return on investment by going into financial services such as investment banking, where you work for for a couple years at a place like Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan, go back for a couple years of B-school, and find yourself making $250k at 32 as a vice president of some random business activity. The popularity of that easily earned, highly lucrative business degree is the reason why Cornell started offered a campus-wide minor in business; one-sixth of Cornell’s students go directly the financial sector, which is actually down a little bit from previous years.

There’s also a third mantra, much more negative than the first two: humanities doom you to unfulfilled jobs in coffee shops or years of fruitless grad school labor. Unfair certainly, but the academic stigma, also known as “what are you going to do with that degree?”, is strong for liberal arts majors.

I decided to take the numbers and see if there were any trends in enrollment in certain fields over the years.
Looking at this, it’s easy to pick out some winners and losers over the past decade. Social Services, English, Family and Consumer Sciences, and Architecture have notable drops. Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Engineering, Agriculture and Business have grown. Liberal Arts shows no strong trend. Computer Science shows an interesting parabolic shape, which can be attributed to the tech bubble bursting in the early 2000s, and taking a few years to recover before entering the current tech boom.

I’m going to take three years – 2003, 2008 and 2013, and split them into “STEM” and “non-STEM” for this next plot. The unknowns and multidisciplinary majors will be removed and I’m going to treat business separately. Non-STEM will be history, performing arts, social sciences, social services, psychology, philosophy, liberal arts, english, family and consumer science, foreign languages, education, personal services, communication, architecture, and area/cultural studies.  STEM will be physical sciences, nutritional science, math, biology, engineering, computer science, natural resources and agriculture. I’ve made an attempt to separate “hard” sciences from “soft” sciences, and I realize there’s plenty of room for debate which categories belong in STEM and non-STEM, but I’ll leave that out for now.

Over time, non-STEM is shrinking, while STEM and business grow. It could be that there’s genuinely more interest in business and STEM, or Cornell students could simply be more pragmatic these days, choosing things that offer cold hard cash versus the educational enlightenment of the arts and humanities.


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.