STEM Majors on Rise even as College Enrollment Shrinks

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center issued its latest college enrollment numbers reflecting data for the fall 2017 term. While all types of institutions have seen drops in enrollment, many STEM programs have seen increases.

Enrollment by sector is down across the board. Four-year for-profit institutions saw the largest drop, a trend that has been true since spring 2015. In the latest period for-profits decreased by 7.1 percent. Even enrollment in four-year publics, which has increased at least incrementally every quarter since fall 2014, shrunk by 0.2 percent. Two-year publics dropped by 1.7 percent, more than four times the size of the contraction for four-year nonprofits, where enrollment fell by 0.4 percent.

Across all types of degree-granting institutions the reduction was 1 percent. Enrollment in fall 2017 was 18.8 million compared to 19 million in fall 2016.

The term enrollment report comes out twice a year. The research center issues its enrollment estimates in December and May, based on data submitted by the institutions.

The shrinkage of first-time college students was most dramatic among people 25 or older. Across all types of schools 13.3 percent fewer of these non-traditional students enrolled than the previous year. Among students aged 18 to 24, the reduction was 1 percent. It should be noted that older students make up just about a tenth of all first-time enrollments (about 251,000 versus 2.4 million).

Women continue to outnumber men across all types of colleges and universities. In the latest term, 10.8 million women were enrolled, down 0.7 percent from a year ago, compared to 8 million men, down 1.5 percent from fall 2016.

Across instructional programs more undergraduate majors lost enrollment than gained it. The big exceptions — where gains were made — tended to concentrate on STEM fields. Overall, in four-year institutions, science, technology, engineering and math majors grew by 2.2 percent. In terms of real numbers, majors related to computer and information sciences and support services saw growth of 24,919 enrollments from fall 2016 to fall 2017; and biological and biomedical sciences grew by 14,374 enrollments.

4-year degrees

Change in enrollment from fall 2016 to fall 2017

Fall 2017 enrollment

Science technologies/technicians

6.8%

7,815

Computer and information sciences and support services

6.1%

431,808

Communications technologies/technicians and support services

4.9%

19,189

Biological and biomedical sciences

2.4%

615,946

Engineering

1.2%

608,515

Mathematics and statistics

1.0%

88,064

Engineering technologies and engineering-related fields

-1.5%

106,800

Physical sciences

-2.4%

149,466

In two-year institutions, the strongest growth — 17.4 percent — took place in programs related to science technologies/technicians, which rose by 2,391 enrollments. Biological and biomedical sciences grew by 15.4 percent, adding 13,540 enrollments from fall 2016 to fall 2017. Computer and information sciences and support services added 8,113 enrollments, representing a rise of 3.9 percent from the previous year.

2-year degrees

Change in enrollment from fall 2016 to fall 2017

Fall 2017 enrollment

Science technologies/technicians

17.4%

16,108

Biological and biomedical sciences

15.4%

101,649

Computer and information sciences and support services

3.9%

216,613

Communications technologies/technicians and support services

3.7%

30,716

Physical sciences

3.4%

38,741

Engineering

2.3%

89,021

Engineering technologies and engineering-related fields

-1.4%

124,169

Mathematics and statistics

-2.8%

20,078

The complete report is openly available on the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.