Sometimes we touch upon the question of what people know or don’t know.  Probably this has something to do with what they study, assuming that they remember any of what they are exposed to in school.

So what do college students major in?

I have national figures, as well as recent numbers for Harvard.

Nationally [ 2009-2010], about 21% are business majors,  10% major in social sciences and history,  8% in “health professions and related programs”, 7% are educational majors,  6% psych majors, 5% in visual and performing arts,   5% in biological and biomedical sciences, 5% in “communication, journalism, and related programs”,  4% in engineering, 3% English and literature, 2% in computer and information sciences, 1.4% in physical sciences, 1% in mathematics and statistics.  I haven’t mentioned everything.

Harvard [2009] is different. They had 758 kids majoring in economics, 495 in government, 306 in social studies, 290 in psychology, 247 in English, 236 in history, 158 in history and literature, 155 in neurobiology, 154 in molecular cell biology, 154 in sociology. How many students in those top ten majors would have a good grasp of quantitative inheritance, natural selection, biological influences on behavior?  None of them.

Least popular majors at Harvard, 2009: Earth and Planetary Sciences 28, African and African American studies, 27, Folklore and Mythology, 21,  Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality 16, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations 14, Slavic Languages and Literature 13, Astronomy and Astrophysics 5, German Languages and Literature 5, Sanskrit and Indian studies 3.

Stanford is another story.  Here are 2007 numbers:

Human Biology 167
Biological Sciences 151
Economics 143
Political Science 103
Psychology 102

English 92
International Relations 87
History 71
Computer Science 70
Engineering 62
Mechanical Engineering 59

Management Science and Engineering 56
Electrical Engineering 48
Mathematics 48
Symbolic Systems 44

Communication 36
Public Policy 34
Physics 30
American Studies 26

Sociology 26
Mathematical and Computational Science 24
Earth Systems 23
Science, Technology and Society 22
Art 21
Chemistry 21

Urban Studies 20
Chemical Engineering 16
Music 16
Anthropological Sciences 15
Cultural and Social Anthropology 15

Civil Engineering 14
Film and Media Studies 12
Spanish 10
Classics 9

East Asian Studies 9
Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity 8
Drama 8
Feminist Studies 8

Geological and Environmental Sciences 8
Linguistics 8
Philosophy 8

Religious Studies 8
Humanities 7
German Studies 6
Environmental Engineering 5

Japanese 5
Asian American Studies 4
Comparative Literature 4
French 4

African and African American Studies 3
Chicana and Chicano Studies 3
Individually Designed Major 3
Materials Science and Engineering 3

Slavic Languages and Literature 3
Archaeology 1
Chinese 1
Individually Designed Major in Engineering 1

Italian 1
Native American Studies 1
Philosophy and Religious Studies 1

School of Earth Sciences Total: 31

School of Engineering Total: 334

School of Humanities and Sciences Total: 1449

University Total: 1814

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75 Responses to Majors

  1. mysterian says:

    Rice University class of ’79: Of the 576 or so who matriculated only 7 ended with a degree in Physics….

    • Steve Sailer says:

      I was a year behind you at Rice. It was fun being an econ major because Econ 101 was hard, but the rest of the major was easy. So, we econ majors got a fair amount of respect without doing much work.

  2. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    What, no underwater basket weaving?

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  4. prime8 says:

    “How many students in those top ten majors would have a good grasp of quantitative inheritance, natural selection, biological influences on behavior? None of them.”

    I majored in Psychology (’06) and felt like I came out with a pretty decent grasp of all those concepts. Not nearly as good as it could have been, but also not as bad as you and some readers of your blog would think would be taught at a, um, “Northeast” school.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Can you give some specific examples of things you learned, along those lines?

      • Robert Ford says:

        I majored in Behavioral PSY in ’04 and I can assure you it’s a B.S. major…and i don’t mean Bachelor of Science:)

      • little spoon says:

        “I majored in Behavioral PSY in ’04 and I can assure you it’s a B.S. major…and i don’t mean Bachelor of Science:)”

        It was definitely a B.S. major at my school too, but I went to a school primarily known as an engineering/CS institute.

      • Patrick Boyle says:

        You need to consider a couple other factors. First of all some subjects go out of date faster than others.

        I too have an undergraduate degree in psychology. I took a genetics course. I was I believe the only psych student in the school to do so. Almost everything I learned about genetics however is now obsolete. For example we were told that there was something called the “Central Dogma”. The sequence went DNA-RNA-Protein. No exceptions. I wasn’t well prepared for understanding AIDS and RNA viruses.

        I taught statistics and data communications for many years. Nothing in business statistics today is any different from what it was then. I could teach a class tomorrow without bothering to crack the text book. All my examples, jokes and anecdotes are still good. But like genetics, everything has changed in data communications. I used to drill students in the structure of the common protocols but that was before Wi-Fi. I used to teach the pin outs of RS-232. Now everyone uses USB and HDMI. Just a few years ago I was a technical editor on communications protocols for Novell Press. Now I can’t figure out how to make my own home network work.

        I always wanted to teach classical history. I suspect that it is like business statistics – learn it once and you’re good for life. But for most subjects unless you continue to read throughout your life you will lose whatever you once knew. I had been an econ major before psychology. I have made it a life long policy to read at least one econ book a year. That’s probably the minimum for any subject that has any new ideas.

      • prime8 says:

        I definitely don’t agree that it’s a bs major (at least at schools with a good psyc program). Look, I’m not arguing that spending a few days reading your book or even growing up on a farm wouldn’t provide a better understanding about the specific subjects you mentioned than my psyc degree — merely that for a course of study that doesn’t specifically deal with human evolution I still felt exposed to enough relevant ideas to form introductory opinions regarding those subjects (selection, inheritance, biologically-driven behavior, etc).

        Now it’s hard to remember what knowledge comes from which source but I can go over some classes that surely contributed.

        ‘Evolution and Behavior’ — good course that provided a rudimentary framework for many issues you discuss.
        ‘Comparative Psyc’ — also discussed evolutionary psyc a lot and was helpful because you could see which approaches to psychology make more sense than others.
        ‘Behavioral Neuroscience’ + lab
        ‘Physiological Psychology’
        ‘Psychological Tests’ — basically a psychometrics course. IQ differences between populations were (briefly) discussed.

        Admittedly I did take an introductory genetics course as an optional elective. By itself it wouldn’t have done me any good (who cares about peas and stuff?), but in context it probably helped bring things together. Anyways, my point: an open and intelligent person with a good psyc degree and eyes should realize that “evolution is still happening,” that populations differ based on ancestors’ environments and activities, and that these differences are relevant to modern society. If you studied psychology or related fields and don’t know this it’s because you’re biased and/or stupid, not because there was some liberal educational conspiracy hiding the facts. At least not much. 😉

    • jorge videla says:

      hey, i’ve got degrees in maths and chemistry and i know that behavioral genetics is almost 100% rot. i also know that murray’s explanation of ashkenazi iq is superior to h & h’s.

      but then again her professor hsu wanted my spit. he found nothing of course. no surprise.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        “and i know that behavioral genetics is almost 100% rot”

        Do you still think that Australian Aborigines having more alcoholism despite drinking less than White Australians is evidence against behavioral genetics rather than for?

      • jorge videla says:

        theroux’s point was that the abos weren’t alcoholics any more often than white australians, but i’m sure there have been studies. the obvious confound is that being an abo or a maori or a navajo sucks. not just a little, but a lot. the same goes for the crack addicts in the inner city or the meth addicts in the country. alcoholism is actually more common going up in education and income in the uk. but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons why a british physician drinks too much.

        the ideologist finds the locus of pathology in the individual never in his society.

        some are more susceptible than others under identical circumstances. so what? it’s totally irrelevant. that’s why it’s all rot. why is anyone in such circumstances that he is susceptible at all? the ideologist doesn’t ask this ever.

        if you have a good reason to stop you stop. there is no treatment for addiction as far as i know which is more effective than a placebo.

      • misdreavus says:

        “the obvious confound is that being an abo or a maori or a navajo sucks”

        Being a Japanese in Hiroshima during the aftermath of WWII sucks. Being a Korean peasant who has had his ancestral village split in two by geopolitical machinations beyond his comprehension, and half his family burned alive during firebombing raids sucks. Being a Volga German who has suffered famine and genocide under Soviet collectivization sucks. Being an Ashkenazi Jew in Poland during Hitler’s drive to the east sucks. And if you ask me, I can’t think of anything worse than a genocide that wipes out six million members of your tribe.

        Why gee since we all know that conflict theory is the gospel truth, all of these ethnic groups should be suffering from unusually low IQs, morbid obesity, alcoholism and heroin addiction, as well as every other “disease of society, discrimination, et al” you can imagine — except they don’t. Society my goddamn ass. Sociological theories for the persistence of drug addiction have just about as much predictive value as reading the entails of a chicken — only difference is, you can’t get a good meal out of a Emile Durkheim book.

      • jorge videla says:

        when it sucked i bet they drank more. but it doesn’t suck anymore for them. anyway, how would you know? the confound isn’t that it sucked, it’s that it sucks. and i never claimed that was the cause of their drinking anyway.

        the commenters here are pretty low quality though.

      • misdreavus says:

        unfortunately for you, there’s is no fantasy universe we can concoct where life is perfect for everyone, and industrial civilization is here to stay.

      • jorge videla says:

        no. but the world could be a much less toxic place. the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. instead there are pills for everything and jive about heritability of various almost exclusively modern ailments.

        diabetic — pill
        obese — pill, gastric bypass, etc.
        depressed — pill or ect
        addicted — counseling or sometimes pill

        society is a juggernaut. if you’re squished underneath it was in your genes. rot on!

      • misdreavus says:

        I don’t we’ll ever manage even a close approximation of “good”. Why don’t we return to a comment you made about shell shock in another thread. Sure, if we somehow managed to eradicate all war, shell shock would cease to exist. But that’s a big “if”, isn’t it. “If”? “IF”??? Why don’t you try to end global hunger first and engineer the climate worldwide so that nobody ever dies from famine? At least with the first two fantasy scenarios we’ve got real food and a real climate.

  5. j3morecharacters says:

    How many students in those top ten majors would have a good grasp of quantitative inheritance, natural selection, biological influences on behavior?

    I’d imagine that half of the eight Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity majors should have some grasp of the subject. It would be interesting to see the syllabus.

    • reiner Tor says:

      I’d imagine that they would learn how colorful but equally valid are the different cultures that coped with the difficult circumstances imposed by Society or by White Privilege and White Supremacism.

      • j3morecharacters says:

        I think Greg is framing the issue incorrectly. Quantitative inheritance, natural selection, biological influences on behavior are not studied in humanities but agriculture: genetics, cattle breeding, crop improvement, and most of all, ecology.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        j3morecharacters notes that the prime field for learning about genetics is agriculture.

        I think there was so much progress in biology in 19th and early 20th Century Britain in part because intellectual elites (e.g., Darwin, Galton, etc.) had much exposure to scientific agriculture. Animal breeding was fashionable and discussed at the best dinner parties.

  6. Andrew says:

    “Harvard [2009] is different…..290 in psychology….How many students in those top ten majors would have a good grasp of quantitative inheritance, natural selection, biological influences on behavior? None of them.”

    What about Steven Pinker? Are you implying that Pinker has given in to the blank slaters?

    Didn’t Jason Richwine earn his Phd at Harvard?

  7. Peter says:

    You’ll often hear chatter about how graduates with degrees in communications/ethnic studies/humanities etc. are ill-prepared for the real world and are lucky if they end up flipping burgers. What hardly gets any discussion is whether undergraduate business degrees are worth anything. Quite an omission, given that it’s the most popular major.


  8. Well, I started in Math at William and Mary in 1971, but ended up taking a dog’s breakfast of courses, barely qualifying for an actual major in Theatre (yes, you spell it that way at W&M). There I learned from reading the playwright Imamu Baraka (previously LeRoi Jones, subsequently Amiri Baraka) the Nation of Islam belief that the ancient scientist Yakub created the white race from the black on the island of Patmos by selective breeding and infanticide. (“A Black Mass,” 1966)

    This contrasted with Anthro 201, where I learned that there were no races, only clines. I forget what else.

    I also learned socially that people from Appalachia married their cousins and raped their nieces, and this kept the whole group more stupid; also, that educated young women evaluated men for their breeding potential but were deeply offended at any suggestion they were to be regarded in the same way.

    Good times, really.

    • jorge videla says:

      if you haven’t figured it out yet, it looks like prof hsu’s study came up with nothing. too many genes affecting the trait apparently. he thinks he’ll need 300k subjects. with the modest .69 wechsler full scale mzt correlation the genetic “true score” for those with iq = 160 is only 141.

  9. Jim says:

    I read a recent post by Diane Ravitch in which she begins by discussing the problem of recent college graduates unable to get a job for which a college education is relevant. After discussing this problem she states that we need to increase government subsidies for college education to get yet more college graduates!

    What happened to common sense and sanity?

  10. dearieme says:

    “Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations 14”: that’s handy for the State Department, eh?

    Decades ago I had an American friend who went to do a PhD at an ancient British university. He was astonished to find an undergraduate course where the class worked in Turkish, Farsi and Arabic, rather than in translation. I pointed out that they probably all had Latin, French and German before they went to university; some might even have had Greek. Those were the last days of the English and Scottish schools before the Forces of Progress took them over.

  11. Pangur says:

    reiner Tor says:
    November 23, 2013 at 6:45 pm
    “I don’t think it’s fair to compare present day PhDs with 1913 undergrads. At the time maybe 1% of the general population received university level education, whereas these days probably more people get PhDs. So you are comparing the top 1% of 1913 with the top 2% of 2013.”

    I agree that it’s not fair, but probably not in the way you imagine.

    • No, he’s right. Your data amounts to an anecdote. A select population, trained in a narrow and common range of subjects, cannot be accurately compared to other populations.

    • reiner Tor says:

      I did a quick Google search, and the number of people getting a higher education in the UK was roughly 1% of births (ten thousand vs. roughly one million), when the number of births had been in a secular decline for a long time. So I estimate that actually less than 1%, maybe 0.9 or 0.8% of people born eighteen or twenty years before got entry to a university. They probably all descended from the upper classes or upper middle class, plus a select few talented people from the lower parts of the middle class.

      Today in the US roughly fifty thousand PhDs are being awarded, when the number of births is just roughly four million. However, roughly 40% of those PhDs are awarded to foreign-borns, so it appears that comparing PhD students to 1913 British university freshmen might be a fair comparison, after all.

      However, there is a difference in that in 1913 Britain nearly all intelligent and ambitious people with the means to finance it went to a university, whereas that’s not the case with the US PhD programs – only people with a plan for an academic career would want to go there, which is a small subset of the whole.

      Another obvious point is that 1913 British university freshmen were younger.

      With so many points pro and contra, I think it’s not a very good comparison – what would it prove? That education was able to better educate the 1913 top 1 IQ percentile, than now the 2013 top 5 IQ percentile? Is it even a meaningful comparison?

      • dearieme says:

        “in 1913 Britain nearly all intelligent and ambitious people with the means to finance it went to a university”: simply not so. Many professions were open to people without degrees so some school-leavers would choose not to go even if their families could afford it. It wasn’t until the sixties and seventies that many professions shut the door on non-graduates.

      • reiner Tor says:

        I would still venture to say that those who were wishing for an academic career were all going to university, plus a sizable portion of the rest. However, now only people wishing for an academic career start a PhD program. Why else bother?

    • Steve Sailer says:

      As an anecdotal point, my impression is that middle class Tom Stoppard not going to college in the 1950s in England but instead getting a job was already thought moderately unusual.

      • dearieme says:

        “I would still venture to say that those who were wishing for an academic career were all going to university”: yes, I’m sure you’re right on that.

        Stoppard: maybe so; depends probably on his circle. He could still have become, for example, an architect, engineer, accountant, or lawyer without going to university. Not a doctor or vet, though. Nor a schoolteacher in a good secondary school.

        In 1963 I applied to the Unilever management trainee scheme. They wrote me a very pleasant letter saying that they’d be delighted to interview me in the next few weeks, but recommended that instead I went to University first, preferably for a Science or Engineering degree. I replied that I’d take their advice.

      • ironrailsironweights says:

        Speaking of unusual, there’s a chance that for the first time since Harry Truman 65 years ago we might have a president who does not have a college degree. Scott Walker attended Marquette University but did not graduate.


      • dearieme says:

        As distinct from a President who cheated to get his degree i.e. JFK.

  12. Anonymous says:

    if a really smart person is curious they will self teach. Greg, aren’t you somewhat self taught in evolutionary biology? For instance: who taught mathematics to Archimedes, Pascal, Newton…?
    The liberal arts have gotten a bad rap lately. I recently heard an acquaintance say that he discouraged his daughter from majoring in liberal arts…that she was majoring in event planning at a state university because she was guaranteed a job at graduation. Hello? Mathematics, computer science and biology are liberal arts majors. Are they less worth while than a degree in hospitality? You can get your plumbing license in grad school.

  13. As the plurality of majors at Cambridge High (758) is eco, there is no hope for the nation.

  14. dave chamberlin says:

    I offered to buy my sons a bulldozer rather than a college education, I told them they would make far more money with that than a college degree. But of course they declined the offer. Why? Women and parties of course, what sane young man aged 18 would say no to such an opportunity. At age 18 we were almost completely distracted by the fun times to be had in the almost exclusive company of our fellow escapees from our parents’ supervision. I wish in hindsight I had more self discipline to study hard the hard sciences, but damn I had fun, as did my sons. Later in life thanks to the internet, thanks to lists like “edifying books” over at Razib’s blog GNXP Discover we can as the commentator above me says self teach ourselves. It is a wonderful long list of the best non fiction books over a wide range of subjects. 10 years ago I used to seriously annoy Razib and Greg with my ignorant off topic comments and I expect I still do, but thanks to all those fine books I read by some real experts me thinks my babble has become more tolerable.

  15. Greying Wanderer says:

    “if you haven’t figured it out yet, it looks like prof hsu’s study came up with nothing. too many genes affecting the trait apparently. he thinks he’ll need 300k subjects.”

    Would a study need to be configured differently if there were two dramatically different causes of higher average IQ e.g.
    1) selecting *against* load generally with higher average IQ as a by-product
    2) specifically selecting *for* IQ

  16. Jim says:

    Pangur – Hardy’s “A Course in Pure Mathematics” is an introductory textbook on calculus written back in the early part of the 20th century. It covers calculus from the beginning but many of the problems in the book require a level of knowledge of algebra and trigonometry that would be pretty rare in college freshman today.

    I’m not sure how widely this book was used back then but it suggests that Hardy at any rate had what today would be very high expectations of his students. I’m sure that university students in Great Britain in the early 20th century were a much more select group than university students in the US today.

    • reiner Tor says:

      I’m sure that university students in Great Britain in the early 20th century were a much more select group than university students in the US today.

      A fairly obvious point, since back then 1% of people born in a certain year got university education, and now it’s something like over 30%. If we posit a 100% correlation between IQ and education, than the first group will have IQ in excess of 135, the second in excess of maybe 107. No wonder the first group will do much better on average.

  17. dearieme says:

    “who taught mathematics to … Newton”: whoever was teaching at Trinity, Cambridge at the time. And before that his maths master at The King’s School, Grantham.

  18. Steve Sailer says:

    The rise of econ majors to the point where 758 Harvard students are majoring in economics is the source of some of our modern ills.

    • anneallen says:

      a hometown boy was on the Harvard football team and his dad shared the roster with me. If I recall correctly, over 90% of football players were econ grads. It is my understanding that it is not considered a difficult concentration at Harvard. I also heard that the most selective MBA programs do not want undergrad business degrees…I think among the ivies only Penn has an undergraduate business school.

    • anneallen says:

      What do you all think of the increase in MBAs over the last 20 years? I am told that many graduate business classes are taught by true entrepreneurs – some whom are college drops outs. Can entrepreneurship be taught in a classroom or is this a personality type?

      • ironrailsironweights says:

        Most MBA programs aren’t worth much. It’s not quite as bad as with law schools, where only the top 14 matter and the rest are worthless, but it’s getting there.


    • unladen swallow says:

      I get the impression that Economics has been popular at Harvard for quite a while, ever since Keynes and post war big government consensus that formed in the late 1940’s to 1950’s in academia at least, before that I have no idea, maybe Government or English Literature? According to some web sites, Political Science/Government majors are number one at Yale, but Econ is a close second, and Econ is also first at Princeton. I have read some conflicting info about what is most popular at Stanford, but Econ was amongst the top 5 at Stanford in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, and apparently 00’s as well, although computer science and the big four engineering majors are clearly more popular there than at the Big 3 Ivies, for obvious reasons.

  19. Steve Sailer says:

    Economics is a Gentleman’s Business Degree. It shows you are interested in money, but aren’t so ill-mannered as to study anything about how to make it as an undergrad.

    • ironrailsironweights says:

      When I was in college, I took a number of economics classes even though it wasn’t my major. Most of the majors had plans to get MBA’s. At least two of the teachers announced on the first day of class that getting a master’s degree in economics would actually be a better door-opener in the business world than would be getting an MBA. Now, this might seem a bit self-serving, except for the fact that this was a smaller college that did not offer graduate degrees in economics.


  20. j3morecharacters says:

    Modern society needs economics graduates, since one of the largest and fastest growing activity is finance and banking. They learn lots of math. It is not like “queer and gender studies”.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      “Modern society needs economics graduates, since one of the largest and fastest growing activity is finance and banking.”

      I’m expecting that to be self-correcting.

      • j3morecharacters says:

        You seem to think that only tilling the soil is real productive activity and financiers are parasites. Yet a growing portion of economic activity does not involve physical stuff. We are fast moving to a world where physical objects – stuff – will be very cheap and abundant.

  21. Greying Wanderer says:

    jorge videla
    “there is no treatment for addiction as far as i know which is more effective than a placebo.”

    There may be if a population has a higher rate of alcoholism because alcohol has a greater effect on them than the average because they haven’t got a protective adaptation. If so it might be possible to mimic that protective adaptation.

    • jorge videla says:

      there may be in the future, sure. but again, as far as i know, aa doesn’t work any better than doing nothing.

      the exceptions to “addicts have other problems” are tobacco and prescription drug addiction. some will become addicted to pain killers which were prescribed for pain, for example, and tobacco doesn’t produce euphoria as far as i know.

  22. Jim says:

    Jorge Videla – Norway has a serious alcoholism problem. So does Finland. Is that because living in Norway or Finland sucks?

  23. Jim says:

    Considering how much drinking goes on on college campuses I guess the life of the average college student must suck.

  24. Greying Wanderer says:

    jorge videla


    this confirms that the former commi countries drink the most.”

    or northern latitudes.

    • Toddy Cat says:

      While I hate commies and am always happy to blame anything I can on them, there’s plenty of evidence that the Russians were drinking like fish hundreds of years ago.

  25. dearieme says:

    “Teddy was the one who was expelled for cheating”; indeed – he sent in a ringer to take an exam for him. John was the one who had another bloke write his undergraduate dissertation for him. And later his Pulitzer Prize-winning book. What a bunch of gangsters that family are.

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