Trendy majors mirror current issues

Correction appended

Unlike most fads, popular college majors do not often come and go. In fact, the three most popular majors – business administration, social sciences and education – have been the same since 1985, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But with the advent of new technology and the need for a greener economy, there are five new “on-the-rise” majors, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education published earlier this month.

The fields of study gaining popularity at undergraduate institutions around the country are service science, health informatics, computational science, sustainability and public health. Of the five, however, GW only offers a public health master’s program.

Professors in the Department of Environmental Studies and in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, though, say GW does have programs that are similar to the sustainability and health informatics majors.

“Sustainability is touched on throughout the University but the geography department is the closet we have to a sustainability major,” said David Rain, director of the environmental studies program. “Everyone is working to becoming more sustainable and green and this major is just a reflection of that.”

Rain added that even the School of Business is now teaching sustainable methods to its students.

Health informatics is gaining popularity because of the renewed discussion of health care reform in Congress, according to the Chronicle article.

“There is just no shortage of growth in the information field,” SEAS Dean David Dolling said. “We have people working with all kinds of information, especially information assurance.”

In the recent stimulus package, $19 billion were pledged to digitize health care records across America, according to the article. This means that the health care industry will need a new kind of professional, one who can read and update digital records, which is what a health informatics major teaches students.

“Electronic health records have been mentioned by both sides of the aisle as a way to save health care dollars,” professor of Health Administration Robert Burke said in an e-mail. “Policy makers realize there are not a sufficient number of people trained to design, implement and maintain these systems.”

While GW may not have service science or computational science majors, Dolling said his faculty is doing research aligned with the goals of those programs.

“Faculty are studying how to use electronic voting, computer and information assurance to make it easier for people to use,” Dolling said.

Computational science, often confused with computer science, is less about the study of computers and more about how to use the computer as a tool, according to the Chronicle’s article.

A service science major would focus on the science of how people use daily services, from telephones to ordering coffee, the Chronicle said.

While these majors might not break into the Princeton Review’s list of the most popular majors anytime soon, their existence does show that in a time of economic and environmental uncertainty, universities are responding with a new set of skills for students.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: (September 21, 2009)

The Hatchet erroneously quoted David Rain as saying, “Sustainability is touched on throughout the University but the geology department is the closest we have to a sustainability major.” Rain had spoken of the geography, not geology, department.

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