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Here's what ASU, UA and NAU award the most degrees in for students – The Arizona Republic

If it seems times have changed drastically since 2000, they haven’t changed all that much for what areas people are earning degrees in at Arizona universities.
If you come across a college student returning to campus for the start of classes for the fall semester Thursday at Arizona State University — and in the coming days at the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University — it’s likely that they’re studying business.
If not business, try guessing a health profession, social sciences or engineering.
At the start of last school year, close to 32,000 undergraduates at Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University were enrolled in a business, management, marketing or related program.
And that’s not a new trend. Ten years ago, all three schools awarded more bachelor’s degrees in business fields than any other. Twenty years ago, business dominated still at ASU and UA but trailed education as the most popular field at NAU. Business rules nationally for degree seekers, too.
“Business remains No. 1, and business has been the No. 1 undergraduate major for at least 30 years now, and it’s only grown more dominant, I think, over time, so a situation in which about 20% of all undergraduate degrees are related to business,” said Martin Van Der Werf, director of editorial and education policy at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, about the national landscape.
The Arizona schools have significantly expanded programs in STEM areas like engineering and computer science, for example, but by and large, the same sorts of fields lead the pack as did a decade or two ago, with at least seven out of 10 of the most popular fields at the three schools the same in 2020 as they were in those other decades, according to a national higher education database.
Beyond business, the Arizona schools are graduating large numbers of students in biological and biomedical sciences, health professions and engineering fields, areas that were relatively popular 10 and 20 years ago, but which rank higher now.
Education degrees draw a lot of students at NAU, but proportionally fewer at ASU and UA. That’s a huge difference from 2000, when education was the second-highest ranking field for college degrees at ASU, fourth at UA and first at NAU.
As of last fall, more than one in five NAU students was enrolled in a health or education major, areas the school has prioritized.
At ASU, nearly one in 10 students — over 10,000 undergraduates — was in an engineering program, a point of emphasis for the Tempe university, which has worked to grow its engineering school.
After business fields, the most popular at UA was biological and biological sciences, with 11.5% of undergraduates studying in that field last fall.
Although the big picture of popular fields hasn’t changed dramatically, preferences in certain areas of study have shifted, even in just a recent five-year period.
All three state schools graduated significantly more students in computer and information sciences, plus STEM fields more broadly, in 2020 than they did in 2015, for example. At ASU, the number of students who earned a degree in a STEM major increased by more than 80% during that period, according to college completion data from the Arizona Board of Regents.
ASU saw the most growth between in college graduates studying liberal arts and sciences and general studies, computer and information sciences, and architecture in that period.
NAU increased students graduating in public administration and social service, interdisciplinary studies and computer and information sciences.
At UA, the largest growth was in legal professions and studies, followed by science technologies and technicians, and homeland security, law enforcement, firefighting and related protective services.
Arizona students who graduate with computer science or engineering degrees typically make the most money early out of college, around $70,000 and up, per a Board of Regents analysis of recent graduates’ wages.
When it comes to most popular specific degree programs rather than broad fields, the schools differ. Students earned the most four-year degrees in these programs in 2020, per the most recent data available:
Business degrees may in part be popular because graduates claim relatively higher salaries, in the upper $50,000s in the first few years after graduating from college, per data from the Board of Regents. Business fields have long been popular among young people because they are flexible and provide a range of skills, Van Der Werf said.
Business field includes everything from marketing, accounting and operations, to entrepreneurship, finance and sales, plus more specialized areas like hospitality management and human resources.
“These are the kinds of skills that can get you a job at a lot of different industries, and also could perhaps give you the skills that might one day result in you running your own business or creating you own business,” Van Der Werf said.
“People think, ‘How am I going to get my first job? Well, I’ll go work in business, so I’m going to get a business degree.’ And the two seem to go hand in hand.”
Business, social sciences, communication, psychology, and biological and biomedical sciences — all were among the top 10 fields for four-year degrees awarded at all three state schools in 2020, 2012 and 2002.
And the national picture matches closely with the Arizona schools.
Of the about 2 million four-year degrees awarded nationally in 2019-20, 58% were in six fields of study, the most popular being the business field, which accounted for 19% of all the degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. After business came health professions, social sciences and history, engineering, biological and biomedical sciences, and psychology, all of which rank high in Arizona, too.
Van Der Werf said given all the talk of additional skills needed in the workforce and trends of colleges creating new programs, it’s interesting that the most popular fields have been “a little bit static,” with mostly incremental change.
“You often see new a new program created related to STEM fields or information technology, computer science, and yet over time, if you look at the last 20-plus years, you actually don’t see a heck of a lot of change in the percentage of graduates getting degrees in certain fields,” he said.
Generally in the 1970s and earlier, most college graduates got degrees in liberal arts or education, he said. Now, liberal arts degrees are receding in popularity, and education majors have stagnated, an issue given the national teacher shortage, Van Der Werf said.
He said colleges nationally need to continue to think about how they can implement programs that align with workforce needs — what companies are saying they want in terms of skills — as well as student interests.
“I think it’s a time for some creativity in higher education,” he said.
Have a story about higher education? Reach the reporter at Alison.Steinbach@arizonarepublic.com or at 602-444-4282. Follow her on Twitter @alisteinbach.

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