Freshmen Abandon Business

Amid recession, incoming students find field of study less appealing than ever, according to national survey.
January 21, 2010

The percentage of college freshmen planning to major in business is at its lowest level since the mid-1970s, according to a national survey of students who entered baccalaureate institutions in the fall.

Thursday, the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California at Los Angeles released the 2009 version of its “Freshman Survey,” which it has conducted annually since 1966. This latest report is based on the responses of nearly 220,000 first-time, full-time students at 297 four-year institutions. All data have been "statistically adjusted" to reflect the views of nearly 1.4 million freshmen who entered college in the fall.

From 2008 to 2009, the percentage of freshman who plan on majoring in business fell from 16.8 percent to 14.4 percent. The last time interest in the business major was lower was 1974, with 14 percent. Also, in one year, the percentage of freshmen who listed their "probable career" as one in business dropped from 14.1 percent to 12.1 percent. This is an all-time low for the survey; the previous low was in 2003, when 13.8 percent reported that their goal was a career in business.

“I think that a business career doesn’t look as appealing as it once did, nor does it come with a guarantee of being well-off financially as in the past,” said Linda DeAngelo, co-author of the accompanying report and assistant director of research for the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at HERI. “Some of that can definitely be attributed to the general sense that we spent a lot of time over the past year raking business executives and people in high finance over the coals. There’s certainly a trickle down, and I don’t think high school students are immune to that overall feeling about business.”

Disaggregating the various niches within the broad career field of “business,” DeAngelo noted that interest in accounting, business administration and management all fell from 2008, while interest in finance and marketing remained about the same.

The recession not only affected the choices of major and career field among freshmen; it also raised anxiety about their ability to pay for college. In 2009, about two-thirds of the incoming students responded that they had “some” or “major" concerns about “their ability to finance their college education.”

These figures, however, have not changed all that dramatically since the last recession, in the early 2000s. In 2002, 52.7 percent of freshmen reported that they had “some concerns” about paying, and 12.6 percent reported they had “major concerns.” Last year, 55.4 percent reported that had “some concerns,” and 11.3 percent reported having “major concerns.”

Still, DeAngelo argued that simply citing student anxiety about paying for college does not fully gauge the impact of this recession. More figures from the study, she noted, must be considered “in totality” to support her argument that this recession has taken a toll that other recessions have not.

For instance, in the latest survey, 4.5 percent of freshmen reported having a father who was unemployed. This is the highest unemployment rate for fathers since the survey began in 1966. Also, 7.9 percent of freshmen reported that their mother was unemployed. This is the highest since 1979. Since the last recession, these figures have jumped noticeably. In 2002, the unemployment rate for fathers was 2.4 percent, and for mothers, 4.5 percent.

On Student Politics and Remediation

The latest Freshman Survey also reveals a fairly consistent pattern in the political leanings of incoming students. The 2008 first-year class contained the highest percentage of liberals since 1973; 31 percent of freshmen identified themselves that way. The percentage of liberals fell to 29 percent with last fall’s incoming class.

The report’s authors argue that this percentage drop “might at first seem like a reaction to President Obama’s first year in office.” They note, however, that it actually follows a trend the annual survey has chronicled since the election of President Carter in 1976: “Following a political party change in the White House, regardless of political party, in the next year there is a slight drop in the percentage of liberal students and a slight increase in the percentage of conservative students.”

Despite the known pattern in the annual survey, DeAngelo said she and other researchers were still surprised by the two-point drop in the percentage of liberals since the presidential election.

“There was so much talk about the surge of the youth vote and the surge of new voters who were so excited about Obama,” DeAngelo explained. “I expected that the percentage of liberals would have at least stayed the same or even risen with the next class. I thought that the pattern was going to be broken, but that’s been in place since some of these kids’ parents were young.”

The latest survey also reveals that more freshmen than ever reported that they had received “special tutoring or remedial work” in “core subject areas” in high school. Of the entering class in 2009, 21.2 percent noted that they had received this help in “one or more subjects.” This is up four percentage points in the past decade, DeAngelo noted.

Once in college, 38.7 percent of freshmen reported that they thought they would need aid or remediation in “one or more subjects.” This has grown 2.7 percentage points in the past decade. Disaggregated, DeAngelo noted, the reported need for remediation in subjects like English and mathematics has not shifted significantly since 1999.

Considering just the 2009 data, there still exist gaps between the percentage of those who received remedial work in high school in certain subjects and the percentage of those who need remedial work in college. The most severe gaps are in science, writing and foreign languages. Reading and social studies, however, show a decreased need for further remediation in college among freshmen.

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