Bachelor’s Programs: What’s Hot and What’s Not?

November 10, 2022

According to program enrollment data provided to Gray by the National Student Clearinghouse, the number of students enrolled in bachelor’s programs was flat (+0.4%) year-over-year from Spring 2021 to Spring 2022.

What’s Hot?

The 10 most popular programs remained unchanged, although the placement of some programs in the top 10 list shifted slightly. Business remains the largest bachelor’s program, with over half a million students in spring 2022. Psychology was the second-most popular program, with 359,000 students, overtaking Registered Nursing, which moved to the #3 spot with 347,000 students.

Largest 10 Bachelor's programs - Spring Enrollment 2022

Source: PES Program Enrollment Dashboard. Data provided by National Student Clearinghouse for total spring student enrollment by program.

While these large programs continue to be popular among bachelor’s students, some smaller programs are experiencing healthy gains in the number of students enrolled. We analyzed Spring 2021 to 2022 enrollment data to identify bachelor’s programs with the largest gains in the number of students enrolled and those with the largest declines. Note: this analysis focuses on increases in the number of students enrolled, not the percentage increase in enrollment (which would highlight a different group of programs).

Bachelor's programs with the largest enrollment gains - US - Unit growth in enrollment: Spring 2021 vs 2022Source: PES Program Enrollment Dashboard. Data provided by National Student Clearinghouse for total spring student enrollment by program.

Computer Science was the clear winner regarding unit growth in enrollment, adding almost 20,000 students in Spring 2022. Other programs with strong year-over-year enrollment growth are well-known programs such as Finance, Psychology, Marketing, Business, and Cyber Security. Of note, enrollment in Experimental Psychology and Econometrics programs experienced significant gains. Both are STEM-designated programs, which may make them particularly attractive to international students.

What’s Not Hot?

Interestingly, Registered Nursing had the largest year-over-year drop in enrollment (approximately 24,000 students) among all bachelor’s programs from Spring 2021 to Spring 2022. Whether this is reflective of pandemic fatigue, a shortage of nurse educators, or something entirely different is anyone’s guess. However, the drop was three times larger than that experienced by Criminal Justice and Accounting, the programs with the second- and third-largest enrollment declines.

Bachelor's programs with the largest enrollment declines - US: Unit growth in enrollment - Spring 2021 vs 2022

Source: PES Program Enrollment Dashboard. Data provided by National Student Clearinghouse for total spring student enrollment by program.

Program Preferences Differ by Region and State

While national trends are important, institutions need to make program decisions that reflect the demand of students in the markets they serve. Some programs may be more popular among students in one region of the country (e.g., the Midwest), while other programs may appeal to students in other areas.

Similar to our previous blog on master’s program enrollment trends, we looked at how bachelor’s program enrollment growth differed from state to state. Again, we used data for so-called “swing” states in the spirit of the recent midterm elections. Here is what we found:

Bachelors programs with the largest enrollment growth (units) by state (Spring 2021 vs 2022)

Source: PES Program Enrollment Dashboard. Data provided by National Student Clearinghouse for total spring student enrollment by program and state using students’ last known address.

Students in Colorado seem to be in tune with national trends, with four of the five fastest -growing programs in the state also on the national list. In Ohio, on the other hand, four of the five fastest-growing programs are not on the national list.

Furthermore, in Arizona, enrollment in Registered Nursing programs grew, whereas it declined nationally. Similarly, more Nevada students enrolled in Criminal Justice programs year-over-year in Spring 2022, bucking the national trend of decreased enrollment in this program.

Knowing Program Enrollment Trends is Vital

While this is only a high-level view of program enrollment trends, it demonstrates the importance of quickly identifying national and local trends, so you can adapt to the substantial shifts that occur from year to year. For growing programs, you may want to increase marketing and add seats to take advantage of the trends. For declining programs, trimming sections and adjuncts may be appropriate. In either case, being well-informed and agile is critical.

Elaine Rowles

Principal

Elaine works with Gray’s education clients on strategic planning projects, program portfolio evaluations, program feasibility studies, price benchmarking, and research-intensive custom project work. She has performed in-depth analyses of existing programs and institutions, as well as assessed demand and employment opportunities for new and emerging programs.

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