Written by Shivani Choudhary
Machines or Mercurial Philosophers: Why Students Choose to Study the Former
College enrollment trends ebb and flow with various societal, economic, and cultural changes. Within the landscape of higher education, two distinct areas often experience significant fluctuations in enrollment: humanities and engineering. While humanities programs explore the breadth of human expression and thought, engineering and STEM programs tackle the challenges of science, innovation and technology.
Dips in humanities enrollment remain a recurring concern in the world of higher education. These fluctuations do not indicate a diminishing value of the humanities, but rather reflect the evolving interests and priorities of students. The humanities, encompassing fields like philosophy, literature, history, and the arts, are often perceived as being less financially lucrative than STEM disciplines. With recent economic downturns, students often opt for majors thought to offer better job security.
“When it comes to humanities majors, you’ll find them in a lot of different places,” explains Claire Peters, a career advisor at the UW-Madison Career Exploration Center. “A chemical engineering major will most likely become a chemical engineer, but the humanities aren’t like that,” she clarifies.
In a rapidly changing job market, students gravitate toward disciplines that appear more directly applicable to specific careers. A humanities education offers a completely different skill set than an education in STEM. According to the United States Department of Labor, engaging in critical thinking, strong communication, and cultural competence are skills that are highly valued professionally, but often underrepresented in the discourse surrounding the humanities.
A college major does not guarantee a career in that field. Ken Jeong, a comedian and actor, started as a medical doctor with a doctorate from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, earned his bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering from IIT Kharagpur. These are just a few examples that embody the idea that neither a major nor a degree dictates a person’s career path.
Unlike the humanities, different dynamics drive the enrollment spikes seen in engineering and STEM. Students typically associate careers in STEM with high earning potential and job stability. A market with the promise of high-paying careers draws many students to engineering programs. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, engineers have a median annual salary of $100,640.
At UW-Madison, undergraduate enrollment in engineering saw a slight drop between the Fall 2018 and Fall 2020 semesters, but it spiked between Fall 2020 and Fall 2022 with a 7.3% increase. A Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering remained the most popular degree path among engineering students, and the number of students enrolled rose 20% from Fall 2020 to Fall 2023. Among women, biomedical engineering was the most popular major, and female enrollment in the undergraduate program rose 16% over the same period.
Engineering disciplines often evolve in response to emerging technologies. Computer science and engineering degrees grow in appeal as students recognize their contribution to innovation. Colleges and universities also establish partnerships with industry leaders, allowing students to engage in practical experiences. These partnerships allow students to build experience and network with recruiters and leaders in the industry. These facilitate the “other things” Peters mentioned as being important to a college experience.
While the humanities often grapple with a perceived lack of practicality, engineering exhibits a reputation of academic rigor and financial stability. Both fields play a crucial role in the holistic development of students and society at large. Recognizing the strengths of both disciplines bolsters a student’s college experience and ensures that students make choices aligned with their passions and the changing demands of the world.