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Business remains most popular field of study at UB, elsewhere

Business remains solid within the University at Buffalo’s School of Management. That is to say, UB continues to have more students pursuing an undergraduate degree in business than in any other field of study. It’s been this way for at least the past 10 years – even as the number of majors in engineering and biology, the second- and third-most-popular disciplines at UB, exploded during that time.

“Business has always done well. Even when we’ve had slight declines in other areas, our enrollment has always been steady,” said Arjang A. Assad, dean of the School of Management.

This year, UB has 3,166 undergraduate students as business majors – about 15 percent of the university’s overall undergraduate enrollment.

Business tends to be the most popular major for undergraduates at many colleges and universities across the country, as well. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education analysis of U.S. Department of Education data found that 365,272 students graduated from American colleges and universities with bachelor’s degrees in business in 2011-12, the latest data available. The second-most-popular field of study nationally was the health professions, with 163,436 students receiving bachelor’s degrees in those majors.

At UB, the health professions were the fourth-most-pursued degree in 2014, with 2,010 students enrolled in the discipline.

Nearly 55 percent of all UB undergraduates this fall were enrolled in one the four most popular majors: business, engineering, biology and health professions. Business and engineering, in particular, are boosted by strong demand from international students.

Interest in the humanities at UB has waned dramatically over the past decade or so, also following a nationwide trend. UB had 63 percent fewer English majors, 61 percent fewer history majors, 65 percent fewer philosophy majors and 47 percent fewer foreign language majors in 2014, compared with 2004.

Experts say the trend away from humanities study has been caused largely by the state of the economy over the past several years. Worried about securing jobs and limiting their debt, many students pursued disciplines that they believed would provide the best entry into the workforce.

“This is all a consequence really of the 2008 through 2011 recession,” said E. Bruce Pitman, dean of UB’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Unfortunately, college has become more of a vocation center, rather than postsecondary education.”

“People want to see that there’s a job directly at the end of their college career,” he added. “What’s happening at UB is reflective of what’s going on nationally.”

The growing concentration of UB undergraduate students into a handful of popular fields creates significant challenges for university administrators trying to balance teaching resources with demand for certain courses.

Tenure-track faculty are long-term hires trained in specific disciplines. Shuffling faculty away from disciplines with fewer students majoring in a certain discipline isn’t an option. As Pitman pointed out, “Our English professors are smart people, but I don’t think they’re going to be able to teach genomics.”

Besides, even with fewer humanities majors at UB, demand is still high within the College of Arts and Sciences for humanities courses, some of which must be taken by all students as part of the university’s general education requirements.

“In the college, we wind up teaching 80 percent of the credit hours of every freshman, irrespective of their major,” said Pitman. “We’re teaching them anyway, so the demand for us is high and we have to work really hard so that we’re offering enough seats.”

Interest in the sciences at UB, especially biology, has grown as the nation has pushed for more degree earners in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math.

Enrollment of undergraduate business majors at UB peaked five years ago, with 3,636 students. But Assad said that was almost too many. “We were beginning to get more students than we could comfortably find sections for,” he said.

This year’s enrollment number “is a good indicator of where we want to be in the future,” he added.

Pitman suspects the number of liberal arts majors at UB will rebound, as more students and parents come to understand that the type of skills humanities study helps develop – creativity, communication, writing, critical thinking – are highly valued by employers.

“I don’t think the changes in the humanities are existential,” he said. “It’s just that they’re going through a rough period right now.”

It’s not doom and gloom for arts and humanities graduates, either.

Pitman pointed to a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which found that on average, arts and humanities degree holders earn nearly $5,000 less per year than professional and preprofessional degree holders in their first few years out of college. However, at the peak of their careers, arts and humanities degree holders end up earning about $2,000 more per year than professional and preprofessional degree holders.

Assad said student interests are cyclical and the humanities will likely rebound as employers seek out more liberal arts degree holders in an effort to balance their workforces.

The School of Management will continue to try and broaden student horizons beyond just business, too, he said.

“An undergraduate education should prepare the individual for many things beyond a career. It can’t be extremely narrow. It can’t be extremely vocational,” said Assad. “A lot of what we do with our students when we emphasize team skills, communication skills, things like that, are not limited to the business world.”