Major trends

Criminal justice, religion, and even accounting are among the subjects gaining popularity on college campuses, as students eye how society's needs converge with their own aspirations.

For Amanda Soland, a junior at Baylor University, there really was no question about what to declare as her major - she fell in love with forensic science last spring when she took a course on crime-scene investigation.

She had been pre-med. Now her focus is on catching criminals and helping victims' families.

Forensic science has become so popular at Baylor that the school in Waco, Texas, has had to set up a grade-point-average minimum and cap the number of students who major in it.

Other fields of study that have seen a new surge of life are criminal justice, nursing, religious studies, and, at several schools, even accounting.

Driven by corporate scandals, hit television shows, a homeland-security push, and post-"Gen-X" soul searching, many students are choosing majors that offer solutions to societal ills and, they hope, strong job prospects.

Trends in college majors, as in higher education generally, are typically slow to change. It can often take five years or more for student interest in a major to heat up or cool down.

So it's significant that about 17 percent of colleges and universities report sharply higher student interest in at least one of six college-major categories. That's according to a not-yet-published survey by Sallie Mae, the nation's largest student lender. It looked at a representative sample of about 300 two-year and four-year institutions.

"Anything above 10 percent, you're seeing a big change," says Lana Low, a senior executive with Noel-Levitz, the market-research division of Sallie Mae that conducted the survey.

It chose the six categories based on preliminary information gathered last fall. Of the schools that saw an increase in one or more of the categories, 60 percent reported a boost for criminal justice; 38 percent for health-related majors; 24 percent for social studies; 16 percent for faith-based studies; 14 percent for international studies; and 6 percent for aviation.

"These institutions have seen a lot of activity on their campuses since 9/11. So we looked, and lo and behold, we found change was indeed happening," Ms. Low says.

Curious about religion

Sallie Mae's numbers indicate a more modest rise in religion majors than has generally been reported in the news, Low says.

But the phenomenon is anything but subtle at Indiana University, Bloomington, where the number of students majoring in religious-studies jumped 50 percent in two years. The number of majors, 210, is the highest it's ever been.

Two years ago, Matt Riley was a biology major working hard toward medical school. He converted to religious studies after taking an introductory class called "Images of Jesus in Western culture."

"I had a variety of curiosities about the transformation and development of religion," he wrote in an e-mail interview. "I wanted answers about how something that seemed so simple and straightforward, such as the portrayal of the Christ figure, could have so many interpretations."

That fits with what Carolyn Dowd-Higgins, an adviser in the department, is seeing among many students.

"Islam classes have high enrollments, and the Sept. 11 attacks played a big part, but it started even before," she says. "Students are just more curious about things they don't know about."

Donald Braxton, chair of the religion department at Juniata College, a Protestant-affiliated liberal-arts college in Huntington, Pa., says the surge on his campus is partly linked to the waning of the "Gen-X" disaffected outlook on life.

"It's no longer satisfactory to just be ironic about life," he says.

At the University of South Florida, the number of religion majors nearly tripled, to about 80, in five years.

Dell deChant, director of undergraduate studies in religion, says religious themes in television dramas such as "ER" and "The Education of Max Bickford" may have had an influence. And the Roman Catholic Church's sex-abuse crisis could account for some interest.

There's actually a practical side to students' reasoning, too.

"Students figure that they they'll be ahead of the game in their careers if they understand other religions," Dr. deChant says.

"I've got so many religion majors lining up outside my door, I literally have no free time right now - no time for my research."

No more rush to computer science

Where there's "hot," there's also "not." After several red-hot years in the 1990s, computer science has cooled.

The number of new undergraduate students in computer science fell 7 percent in the past school year (at large institutions that offer PhD programs), according to the Computing Research Association in Washington.

For example, at George Washington University, there were 60 freshmen computer-science majors last year and only 33 this fall.

At Virginia Polytechnic Institute, the number of freshmen signing up for computer science fell from about 400 to 300, says Verna Schuetz, associate department head. "We see this as part of a national phenomenon," she says.

A new bookkeeping brigade

In one of college life's little ironies, it appears that negative publicity surrounding the bookkeeping sleight of hand at companies such as Enron and WorldCom may be injecting fresh interest into the venerable accounting major.

Arizona State University in Tempe; Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.; and Hilbert College in Hamburg, N.Y.; said in response to a Monitor query that they are seeing a surge of interest in accounting.

Jose Herrera teaches accounting at Arizona State and has been surprised that, after several years of weakening interest in accounting, the school now has to turn away some accountancy candidates.

"Enron and the rest of the news have been negative," he says. "But it's still provided us with exposure to people who ordinarily wouldn't know what an accountant does. They may have thought accountants were just pencil pushers, but they're realizing accountants have a major impact."

Classes on "fraud examination" have been particularly popular since the Enron fiasco began in 2001, says Sandra Augustine, a professor at Hilbert. The school started an Economic Crime Investigation program in 1999 with about 60 students who chose it as a major. By this fall, the number had risen to 147.

"My own daughter started out on the computer side of things - and now she's shifted over to accounting," Ms. Augustine says. "There's this perception that accounting is dull, boring. But the scandals have changed that to some degree."

Back to the crime lab

By far the hottest majors, however, appear to be criminal justice and forensic science - both fueled by a push for homeland security and pop-culture television shows, professors and students say.

At West Virginia University in Morgantown, the Forensic Identification Program is the fastest-growing degree program on campus. Enrollment has more than doubled, from 200 students last January to 400-plus this fall.

Back at Baylor, Susan Wallace, director of the forensic-science program, says she had to fight to get support for the new major in 1995. It was finally approved in 1999. Enrollment has grown almost 10-fold, from 39 majors the first day it was offered to 350 now.

Clearly that interest is not derived from any olfactory rewards. Out in back of the school's new state-of-the-art forensics laboratory, Dr. Wallace buries dead pigs and other animals in a plot of ground. After the animals decay, students unearth and analyze the results. The school also has a special trailer for field trips to crime scenes.

For Ms. Soland, part of the appeal is the hands-on nature of field work; it's less clinical and theoretical than pre-med, she says. Also, the value of assisting families by identifying remains was driven home to her after the 9/11 attacks.

"Before, I was concerned more about saving someone's life," Soland says. "But with forensics, that helps the surviving family find out what happens."

Soland says she wasn't motivated by the popular but grisly "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" TV show.

But, she adds, "I'm sure it is a big lure to incoming freshmen.... I've watched the shows, too - and pretty much all my friends can't get enough of them."

E-mail your comments to claytonm@csps.com

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