The pandemic as well as the social and political events of 2020-2021 will have a lasting effect on American society. Although it remains unclear what long-term impacts the past year or so may have on younger generations, it’s likely that the time period was influential.

Intelligent.com surveyed 1,250 high school class of 2021 graduates that are attending college in the fall to find how the events of 2020-2021 may have impacted students’ motivation to pursue certain areas of study.

Our findings suggest that student interest in particular fields has changed since 2019, potentially signaling a shift in attitude toward different career paths.

Key findings:

  • Areas of study incoming college freshmen plan to pursue differ from conferred degrees received by 2018-19 graduates
  • Fewer students intend on studying homeland security, law enforcement, and journalism, while a greater number will pursue legal and area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies
  • 42% of incoming college freshmen say the pandemic influenced their anticipated major choice or lack thereof

Student interest shifts in particular areas of study

Based on a comparison with 2018-2019 NCES data, we found that incoming college students are looking toward different areas of study than in the past. Although we recognize that our survey differs as it looks at anticipated major choices as opposed to conferred degrees, more broadly, our findings suggest a change in interest. This shift could be an effect of the pandemic and political and social events of 2020-2021.

How Anticipated Majors for Incoming 2021 Freshmen Compare to 2018-2019 College Degrees Conferred
Interest grew a lot
>50% increase
Interest grew a little
>0 to 49% increase
Interest declined a little
>0 to 49% decrease
Interested declined a lot
>50% decrease
  • Precision production
  • Library science
  • Military technologies and applied sciences
  • Legal professions and studies
  • Architecture and related services
  • Area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies
  • Communications technologies
  • Engineering technologies
  • Agriculture and natural resources
  • Transportation and materials moving
  • Philosophy and religious studies
  • Theology and religious vocations
  • Education
  • Computer and information sciences
  • Foreign languages, literature, and linguistics
  • Mathematics and statistics
  • Biological and biomedical sciences
  • Family and consumer sciences/human sciences
  • Visual and performing arts
  • Business
  • Engineering
  • Psychology
  • Health professions and related programs
  • Physical sciences and science technologies
  • Homeland security, law enforcement, and firefighting
  • Liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities
  • English language and literature/letters
  • Communication, journalism, and related programs
  • Public administration and social services
  • Multi/interdisciplinary studies
  • Parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies
  • Social sciences and history

Interest in legal and social areas of study rises while declining in homeland security, law enforcement

Our survey indicates that compared to 2018-2019 NCES data, more students will pursue degrees in legal professions and studies and area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies and fewer will pursue homeland security, law enforcement, and firefighting related degrees.

It’s possible that these shifts are at least in part due to events such as the death of former Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the January 6th attack on the capitol.

Riya Goel, a college freshman at Barnard College, Columbia University who is pursuing a political science major, says, “The pandemic solidified my decision to want to be involved in politics and really advocate for the issues that I’m passionate about. I had more time to think about and look into the ‘why’ behind some of the microaggressions and systemic issues that plague our country. For me, the pandemic was a call for action, and that starts with majoring in political science and seeing where I can best set myself up to make the most change.”

Decreased interest in communication and journalism

We also found that compared to 2018-2019 NCES data, fewer students intend to study communication, journalism, or related programs.

It’s possible the decline is due to an increasing distrust of the media.

42% of incoming college freshmen say pandemic influenced their anticipated major choice

When asked if the pandemic influenced the anticipated area of study indicated, 42% of respondents say that it has. When comparing students who report the pandemic influenced their decision to those who said it did not, there are notable differences in the fields students intend to pursue.

Students influenced by pandemic intend to pursue different areas of study than those who were not

Students who say the pandemic influenced their decision are more interested in public administration and social services and area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies. This could be reflective of a desire to proactively take on some of the issues debated over the past year.

This group was less likely to indicate that they would pursue health professions. It’s possible that this is in part because witnessing what frontline health care workers endured during the COVID-19 pandemic dissuaded them from pursuing this field.

Students who say the pandemic did not influence their anticipated area of study are more likely to pursue STEM fields or to be undecided about what area of study to pursue.

How students are choosing an area of study

In addition to asking if the pandemic influenced the students’ prospective area of study, we also asked what additional factors came into play in the decision-making process.

One-third of incoming freshmen want to have a positive impact on society

According to Pew Research Center, GenZ is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation and is on track to be the most educated yet. Members of GenZ tend to be  progressive and pro-government and the most likely to want an activist government.

Given this, it’s no surprise that when choosing a major, 1 in 3 students starting college this fall are thinking about how a particular area of study will allow them to have a positive impact on society.

Interest in field still largest factor in major choice

Previous research has shown interest in the subject is the most important factor for incoming freshmen, and we found this is still the case.

The most cited factor for picking a major was “I’m interested in the field,” with 55% choosing this answer. When just looking at the group of students who said the pandemic did not influence their choice, 60% selected this answer.

For students who say the pandemic did influence their decision, future job opportunities was the most selected answer. Given the massive layoffs during the pandemic, students may be thinking about how to mitigate future challenges.

Despite national discussions on student debt, incoming students may not be too concerned with ROI

Despite the ever-increasing cost of college and national conversations happening around the student loan crisis, only 16% of incoming college freshmen say getting a return on their investment is a factor in choosing a field of study.

Given the turbulent nature of the past year and the impact on different sectors, it’s no surprise that those entering college may be thinking about shifting away from certain areas of study and towards others. Time will tell how the events of 2020-2021 have truly impacted younger generations and education.

Methodology

All data found within this report is based on a survey commissioned by Intelligent.com and conducted online by survey platform Pollfish. In total, 1,250 17-19 year old American high school class of 2021 students who plan to attend a higher education institution in the fall of 2021 were surveyed. This survey was conducted on June 2, 2021. All respondents were asked to answer all questions truthfully and to the best of their abilities.

For full survey data please email [email protected]