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A nifty new tool for ‘major’ investigations

Self-described “tableau dabbler,” Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management at DePaul University, has come up with another really nifty tool for using data collected by the U.S. Department of Education to research college majors.

Baylor University, TX (0.5% of graduating class)
Baylor University, TX (0.5% of graduating class)Nancy Griesemer
UCLA graduated more history majors than any other college or university in the country.
UCLA graduated more history majors than any other college or university in the country.Nancy Griesemer

“One of the most common questions people in our profession hear has to do with availability of specific—sometimes fairly narrowly focused—degree programs,” suggested Boeckenstedt. “Which university offers marine biology? In Kansas? Who has a program in network security?”

To get some answers, Boeckenstedt developed a tool that allows users to select any combination of majors to see which colleges offer those degrees and how many students earned a bachelor’s degrees in those disciplines in 2012—the most recent data currently available through the IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) Data Center.

Here is how it works: once you’ve landed on the Bachelor’s Degrees Awarded tab, start by typing a few letters of the major in the top filter box. For example, if you type “Com” and hit “enter,” you will get computer science, communications, commerce, community health etc. listed in the second dropdown box below. At that point, you simply select majors of interest and hit “enter” again. And voilà, a chart will appear on the left listing all the colleges graduating students in those fields.

If you have more specific requirements, you can filter your results by geographic region, state, selectivity, public/private, and religious affiliation.

Once you have your list, try mousing over the color-coded bars. You’ll see how many total degrees the institution awarded in 2012, how many degrees were awarded in the particular discipline, and the percent of all degrees awarded in the major.

This data gives an idea of how strong the program is in context of the graduating class as a whole, provides some clue as to dedicated institutional resources, and might suggest how visible the discipline is to recruiters for internships or job placements.

For example, if you’re interested in majoring in History, you’ll see that UCLA awarded more degrees (428) in “General” History than any other college or university in the country. These degrees made up 4.9 percent of the 8,717 total UCLA handed out in 2012. It’s a substantial department within a large state university. Davidson College, on the other hand, awarded 52 degrees in History, but these historians represented 10.5 percent of the entire graduating class—a significant cohort in a traditional liberal arts college.

If you’re considering a major in petroleum engineering, you’ll find 17 universities listed by IPEDS. While Texas and M graduated the most petroleum engineers—144 or 1.1 percent of the total class, Montana Tech’s 70 grads made up 15.2 percent of its graduates in 2012. One school has a larger department, but the other appears to focus a significant part of its resources in this area.

And not surprisingly, 18 percent of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s graduates studied Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical/Space Engineering, while only 0.4 percent of BU’s grads studied the same thing.

There are some limitations in IPEDS data. First, it’s only as good as what the colleges report. And second, if the major is relatively new, it won’t show up until a class is actually graduated.

There are several other resources that can come in handy while researching majors. The College Board now dedicates a huge amount of its Big Future site to career exploration and college majors. The site provides lots of data on various careers and how to prepare for those careers. It also offers a powerful search engine that supports ‘major’ investigations and can point you to a list of colleges offering specific areas of study.

And College Majors 101 is another free resource with loads of information on careers and majors. This site is fun because it contains a library of videos promoting different majors and departments in various colleges and universities. It also provides general information on areas of study, describes student associations some of which may be open to high school students, suggests relevant publications/websites, and lists some very cool student competitions.

Both the College Board and College Majors 101 would like you to register so their sponsors may feel free to contact you. Resist the urge unless you want even more mail appearing in your various mailboxes.

At the end of the day, don’t be overly concerned if your current planned major is “undecided.” This has been and most likely will remain the most popular major listed on college applications.