A Decade of Degrees

Universities are constantly changing and Northwestern is no exception. Its history—old and new—is written in the creation, destruction, and changing popularity of its majors.

Had your great-great-great-grandfather, or thereabouts, bought a $100 "perpetual scholarship" when the University first opened its doors on November 5, 1855, he would have had five departments and two degrees to pick from. Today, not only do you have the ability to attend NU and not be a Methodist man, but you also have 94 different majors to pick from, according to CAESAR.

The path from the University of 1855 to today is filled with antiquated majors and abandoned programs. For instance, in the years following World War I, the University introduced "Military Science" and "Physical Education and Hygiene" to broaden its course offerings, though both programs have since been abandoned. Those programs didn't get very long in the spotlight: To be prepared for wartime jobs during World War II, more Northwestern students studied math, physics and chemistry.

The period after the war saw a huge change in Northwestern's curriculum. New majors in "Naval Science" and "Home Economics" were created, presumably on the basis of the idea that sailing and sewing were vital anti-Soviet trades. In light of the struggle against communism, classes in "Western Civilization" to teach "democratic values" grew in popularity. This was accompanied by a renewed emphasis on the sciences to keep Moscow from beating us to the moon. The '70s brought new technology and new fields of study: In 1971, the Department of Computer Science was created, closely followed in 1972, by the African-American Studies department.

But change is not just a thing of the past; the University is still evolving. New majors are still being developed, and the popularity of majors can vary wildly, even over the last ten years.

Search for your major and compare it to how others have changed over the last ten years. Then keep reading to learn about some of the biggest changes over the last decade.

To get a sense of the current situation, compare how popular each major was in 2013. Then keep reading to learn about some of the more noticable changes over the last decade.

About The Data: Each year of data is for the school year ending in that year. It is important to note that degrees awarded is a lagging indicator for popularity of majors on campus. For example, if a bunch of freshman this year decided to major in statistics, they wouldn't show up in the data until they graduate three years from now. This data comes to us courtesy of the Northwestern University Institutional Research Office. It can be downloaded here.


Nicholas Garbaty

Students at Northwestern are like Jay-Z: We’ve got 99 problems. That’s where the comparison ends. Whether it’s bombing a stats midterm, getting a hangover the morning after Boomshaka or seeing your high school friends tweet about how happy they are to be out of school, way before you are, we’ve all got something to complain about.

So what should you do with your problems? Talk to your friends. Seriously. Not only can they be great moral support by themselves, but chances are at least one of them is a psychology major.

Over the past decade, the psychology major at Northwestern rose from fifth-most popular major to second, with 74 more students graduating with psychology degrees in 2013’s undergraduate class than in 2003’s.

Lan Nguyen, a Medill freshman, decided to pursue a second major in psychology due to her interest in helping others, as well as the added versatility to her career.

“I’ve always considered a career in therapy or counseling,” Nguyen said. “If journalism doesn’t work out, I’d be more than happy to pursue a career in social work or something. There’s so many different opportunities in psychology.”

According to Mark Presnell, the executive director of University Career Services at Northwestern, psychology majors have many options for their careers. Being able to read, analyze information and think critically can apply to many fields.

“We’ll have people who come here who’ll be psychology majors and go off and do something completely different,” Presnell said. “Outside a couple of fields like [engineering], you’re going to see them across the spectrum looking at opportunities in education, non-profit, marketing, advertising, consulting, etc.”

So if you’re having real problems, I feel for you son. Go talk to a psych major, you’re bound to know one.


Luis Sanchez

If you go to Northwestern, you probably know an Economics major. You probably know twenty. Based on the class of 2013, there’s a roughly 15 percent chance you are one. Economics majors at Northwestern are like red solo cups at a frat party: they’re everywhere.

According to Mark Witte, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Economics, “economics is the most popular major on many campuses that don’t have an undergraduate business program.” The Princeton Review names economics number seven in its list of top 10 most popular college majors. With such widespread popularity, it is not surprising that economics makes up around ten percent of the student body.

Economics is also popular as part of a double major, with half of Economics students completing double majors.

Freshman Hans Mueller-Schrader is considering a second major in International Relations to complement his economics major. For Mueller-Schrader, economics doesn’t always stand out by itself, so “it is good to pair it with something else to give yourself the upper hand.”

“Students can work the requirements of economics around other aspects of their academic and non-academic lives,” Witte said concerning double majors.

Between 2008 and 2010 there was an increase of around 100 people pursuing economics degrees (for a sense of scale, 271 economics degrees were awarded in 2008). According to Witte, this increase was just random variation. “Some years we have a bunch of people graduate early, pumping up numbers in earlier years and depressing them in later years, followed by another such cycle and it looks like a wave, but it’s just noise,” he said.

Regardless of random fluctuations, economics continues to be the most popular major at Northwestern. There's no single reason for its popularity, though the flexibility of the curriculum and the promise of employment tend to be cited frequently.

“I want to give back and help a lot of people,” Mueller-Schrader said. “Economics is a good way to do that.”


Morgan Kinney

Over the past decade, the number of math degrees granted by Northwestern has almost doubled, from about 40 to roughly 80. Michael Stein, the director of undergraduate studies for the math department, mostly attributes the trend to a single factor: better students.

Stein might be on to something with that comment. Northwestern’s acceptance rate for the Class of 2018 hit an all-time low of 12.9 percent, down from 29.9 percent a decade ago. This admission trend is roughly the inverse of the increase in math degrees.

“The fact of the matter is that to get into Northwestern you have to be really good in high school, and most students who were good in high school took math,” Stein said.

Many of these students continue studying math when they come to Northwestern; according to Stein, classes that once had trouble enrolling students are now filling up, and not necessarily only with math majors. While a math degree may seem a natural addition for economics, engineering, and natural science students, Stein said that students from every school walk into his office to declare. Students’ primary majors include English, theater, RTVF and music performance, among others.

These students’ motives are both practical and personal. For one, Stein pointed out that a major or minor in math gives students valuable skills for use in the academic and professional realms where “math is used more and more in places.” He also noted “a lot of esprit de corps among math majors.” Majors and minors end up bonding with their peers in a variety of ways: Students conduct research, mentor peers and socialize with professors outside of class. In other words, the program is more than just problem sets.

And by the looks of it, the number of math degrees will only continue to add up. The Class of 2014 is set to graduate 100 math majors and minors, a 25 percent increase over last year.

Computer Science

Alex Duner

It seems you cannot go anywhere anymore today without hearing about the importance of learning to code. The homeless are learning how to code. Former mayors of New York, toddlers, and two-time NBA champions are learning how to code. Even will.i.am wants you to learn to code. Northwestern students have clearly gotten the memo.

Computer science is one of the fastest growing majors at Northwestern. Back in 2007, computer engineering and computer science were far less popular majors than electrical engineering. But since 2007, the number of students enrolled in computer science has nearly tripled. The last couple of years have also seen an increase in computer engineering majors.

“Computer science has increasing relevance, and an increasing set of applications” says Alan Sahakian, the chair of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Northwestern. “You also find computer science in combination with many other things now,” notes Sahakian. “It’s so important, it’s such a driver to so many other fields, that you find students migrating toward it, either as a single major or often as a second major.”

In all of 2008, 121 students took the class EECS111 – Fundamentals of Computer Programming. This year, 454 students enrolled in the class. Even upper level computer classes are filling up faster than ever. Sahakian says that meeting the needs of this influx of students can be “a real challenge.” The department has added faculty, sections, TAs, and graders. “But if the need continues to grow exponentially, we may even run out of physical space at the university to teach our courses,” says Sahakian.

New Majors

Rosalie Chan

Interdisciplinary, area and ethnic studies majors are a relatively new genre of majors at Northwestern. These interdisciplinary curriculums include courses in language, history, social sciences and the humanities.

The Asian Studies program has been at Northwestern since 1990 in “various guises,” said Pete Carroll, director of Asian Studies. Previously, there was an Asian and Middle East Studies program, but it has separated. Through the program, students can study Chinese, Japanese, Hindi-Urdu and Korean. In more recent years, there has been a growth in the number of students taking Asian languages.

“Certainly there are more and more students who are actively interested in learning more about Asia,” Carroll said. “The Asian Studies program does provide an interdisciplinary type experience, which a lot of students seek out.”

The Middle East and North African (MENA) Studies major started this past fall. According to Brian Edwards, MENA director, the numbers of students in this program are growing quickly because the program is new (the major started in 2006, when faculty proposed a program to accompany the hiring of more Middle East Studies faculty). Currently, there are 30 MENA majors and minors.

“Students have been signing up for the major and minor all year,” Edwards said. “It feels like it’s been a quick growth. It’s still a small number, but it’s still new.”

In this interdisciplinary major, students can study Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew and Persian. According to Edwards, students sign up for the major for a wide range of reasons, from the relevance of the area in current events to interest in the area’s rich culture.

“One of the things I love about Northwestern is it’s responsive to changes in the intellectual environment, geopolitical environment, students’ desires and interests and faculty’s interest,” Edwards said. “There are enough people to put energy and time into this major.”

The African Studies and African-American Studies programs at Northwestern are more developed. The Program of African Studies started in 1948. As for the Department of African-American Studies, it started in 1972, partly because of protests from African-American students in the late 1960s to increase attention to African-American history and literature. These protests included a sit-in at the University’s business office in May 1968.

Likewise, the Asian-American Studies program started in the wake of a protest in April 1995 to establish such a program. Many students who protested even went on a hunger strike. The program began in Fall Quarter of 1999 and graduated its first minors in 2000.

According to Ji-Yeon Yuh, director of Asian American Studies, there has been strong enrollment in Asian-American Studies courses, as most classes are always full or close to full. However, she said it can be difficult to convince students to actually minor in Asian-American Studies.

“It’s hard to persuade them to get a minor,” Yuh said. “We try to educate our students on the market value of humanities majors and minors.”

Yuh said that interdisciplinary and ethnic studies majors can foster creative and analytical thinking. However, they also touch on controversial issues.

“A lot of the analysis revolves around issues of racism, gender and gender discrimination,” Yuh said. “The fields are generating scholarship that criticizes the current state of the world.”

Currently, there are 27 Asian-American Studies minors. Yuh said that the program has a small faculty, and usually, the number of students minoring in the subject is in the low twenties.

The Latino and Latina Studies program is also relatively new, as it started in 2008.

Although students may not choose to major or minor in these interdisciplinary majors, the classes are still open to students, helping them learn more about diverse cultures and issues.

“Even for people who don’t have time to major or minor, there are a lot of interesting classes,” Edwards said.