Choosing a major at the University of South Carolina was easy for Nathaniel Mills.
The 17-year-old Lugoff native got his first computer at 7 years old and grew up interested in learning coding. The USC freshman chose his prospective major three years ago — long before he entered college — and never wavered, believing better job prospects and paychecks will make post-grad life comfortable.
“I thought; ‘Why not study computer science and make good money as well?’ ” Mills said Wednesday as he stood in a long line of new students filing into USC’s engineering building.
Mills is among a growing number of USC freshmen taking STEM majors – focusing on science, technology, engineering and math.
As those majors have grown at the state’s flagship university over the past decade, the popularity of others — history, social sciences, English and education — has declined, according to data from the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.
More scholarship money and better job prospects for science and math fields have driven the trend, which is not confined to USC, according to John Lane, academic affairs director at the commission.
“We’re seeing this not only statewide, but regionally in the Southeast and also nationally,” Lane said.
South Carolina has pushed the trend, in part.
In 2007, S.C. lawmakers agreed to offer in-state lottery scholarship winners an additional $2,500 a year for studying science or math in their final three years of school.
USC also offers a onetime $3,300 “STEM supplement” to freshmen who are named Palmetto Fellows and enroll in a science or math major.
Scott Verzyl, USC’s associate vice president for enrollment and dean of undergraduate admissions, said the school has pushed science and math in part to keep up with the state’s workforce demands.
“Certainly, the state needs computer science,” Verzyl said. “There’s about six computer science jobs for every computer science grad.”
Promising, lucrative careers
Between 2005 and 2015, incoming freshman studying computer and information sciences at USC more than tripled, data show.
Incoming freshman health science majors rose 189 over the past decade. Biology and biomedical science majors jumped 137 percent. Engineering majors rose 129 percent, and students studying business and marketing rose 76 percent.
The growth in those majors far outpaced the 39 percent growth of USC’s incoming freshman classes over that same period.
“These are professions that have been identified globally, not just in our state or region, as very promising careers,” said Lane of the Commission on High Education. “And it is lucrative. There is the opportunity for growth. These are creative disciplines as well, so there’s the opportunity to provide solutions that have not been offered before.”
Among the biggest losers in freshman enrollment are: history, down 56 percent; education, down 39 percent; and communications and journalism, down 13 percent from 2005.
Not all STEM students are in it for the money.
Julia Fuller, an 18-year-old freshman from Charlotte, said she grew up volunteering at hospitals and dreaming of becoming a doctor.
“The money was never first,” the public health major said. “That’s a nice benefit of being a doctor, but medicine is just fascinating.”
Matt Mulham, an 18-year-old freshman from Long Island, N.Y., said he was drawn to USC’s acclaimed international business program for the chance to travel the world – though money played a part.
“Being able to provide for myself, for my future family, plus going abroad, going to different countries and being able to do whatever I want” were important, too, Mulham said.
The exception is the trend of more STEM majors is mathematics and statistics. The number of USC freshmen choosing to major in math in statistics dropped 33.3 percent from 2005 to 2015, data show.
“One of the disconnects for a lot of students who see math as a prospective major has been the career trajectory question,” Lane said. “What can I do with a math degree?”
Roles of recession, aging society
The Great Recession also may have played a role in the the majors declared by USC’s newest students, who were in middle school during the economic downturn.
In her 2012 doctorate dissertation, Elizabeth Clelan, an economist at a Washington, D.C., think tank, found college students who enroll after a recession were more likely to major in business, engineering, technology and health sciences because of the more lucrative career options.
Brian Cadena, a University of Colorado economics professor who has studied enrollment trends, said “structural” factors also are in play.
Health sciences has become a popular area of study, for instance, “as the population ages, the baby boomers get older and the economy needs more health workers,” Cadena said.
The size of USC’s freshman class grew by 39.2 percent from 2005 to 2015 to 5,199 students. What those students are majoring also changed radically. A look at the winners — majors with more students — and losers — those with fewer students — from 2005 to 2015.
Computer and information sciences
Biological and biomedical sciences
Business, management, marketing
Parks, recreation, leisure and fitness studies
Homeland security, law enforcement, firefighting and related protective services
Visual and performing arts
English language and literature
Communications, journalism and related programs
Mathematics and statistics
Foreign languages, literatures and linguistics
SOURCE: S.C. Commission on Higher Education