STEM degrees soar at Michigan colleges; business grads decline, records show
- More Michigan graduates are earning bachelor’s degrees in science and math fields while fewer are majoring in business, health professions and communications and journalism.
- Women have contributed to those changes, with the number of women getting a computer science degree in the state jumping 50 percent in five years.
- Overall, however, the state has recorded a 21 percent drop in the number of students earning an associate’s degree.
The push to get more Michigan students into math and science heavy programs is bearing fruit, with more people majoring in those fields — while fewer are graduating with degrees in business or liberal arts programs.
Although the overall number of bachelor degrees has fallen slightly since 2018, four of the five programs with the biggest increases are in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees, according to a Bridge Michigan analysis of the bachelor’s degrees awarded since 2018 at the state’s 15 public universities.
And four of the five degrees with the biggest drops were business, social science, communications and English degrees.
- Judge declines to order University of Michigan grad students back to work
- What Biden proposal on transgender school athletes means to Michigan
- Lake Superior State University president resigns
The analysis also found that the shift toward STEM is being driven in part by women and minorities who are accounting for a growing share of those degrees, with the trend helping align more Michigan graduates with the hottest and most lucrative jobs in the state.
“It’s an encouraging sign,” said Dan Hurley, chief executive officer of the Michigan Association of State Universities, speaking about the increase in STEM degrees and the increase in women and minorities choosing it. “It’s progress and more work needs to be done.”
Take for instance computer science and information systems, one of the fastest growing and higher-paying fields despite huge tech layoffs. It’s dominated recent headlines with the notable increase in the use of artificial intelligence systems.
Michigan’s universities reported a 33 percent increase in bachelor degrees in the fields of computer and information sciences and support services from 2018 to 2022, going from 2,130 to 2,830 and it is now the seventh most common major, up from ninth.
Yet while computer and information sciences remain dominated by men, the number of women getting computer science degrees jumped over 50 percent in that time period and they now make up nearly a quarter of those getting a degree, up from 20 percent in 2018.
At the same time, the percentage of Hispanic students getting computer science degrees more than doubled to 135 in 2022 and the number of Black computer science majors nearly doubled, from 55 to 104.
Uptick of females in STEM
Similar changes have occurred in the growing fields of biomedical sciences, engineering and math and statistics, where women getting a math degree rose 23 percent compared to a six percent increase among men. Blacks, Hispanic and Asian students and other minorities also now make up an increasing share of graduates in those fields, seeing a 33 percent increase in degrees earned, up from 1,930 in 2018 to 2,570 last year.
“I’ve been talking about it for a long time. It’s been slow (in) coming,” said Sarah Gammans, director of counseling at Northview High School in Kent County in west Michigan.
Gammans said she has noticed the uptick in STEM students — and the increased interest among young women and minorities have in engineering and other science and tech fields.
“I think we’ve been doing a better job of exposing (students) to a wider variety of STEM jobs,” she said.
Part of the driver, Gammans and others say, is the desire for a sure-fire job after graduating. More students — and their parents — look at college as an investment and they want a well-defined return. Fewer are interested in programs that don’t offer a clear path to employment, like being an English major or focusing on history or art, she said.
“That has certainly been a shift,” said Jennifer Drake, dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences at Grand Valley State University, which has seen a surge of interest in biology and related fields.
The school awarded 461 bachelor degrees in biology-related fields in 2022, up from 208 in 2018. Part of that is a change in the classification of majors but it’s also the result in growing interest in wildlife biology and environmental-related fields, said Janet Vigna, chair of the school’s biology department.
The value of a liberal arts degree
But Hurley and others are sounding a cautionary alarm. They say there is still value in liberal arts programs and the “breadth and depth” of a degree that includes an array of subjects, from social and hard sciences to languages and the arts.
Hurley said the change toward more STEM careers is reflective of “workforce demand” but added employers are finding they also want liberal arts graduates and the skills they offer too. If the shift becomes too tech-heavy, it “would come back to haunt us in the future,” Hurley warned.
To address some of those fears, Grand Valley has pushed for students to add the “arts” to their STEM career — they call it STEAM — and has created a program in which liberal arts students are paired with a local employer.
Under the Laker Accelerated Talent Link program at the university, the student, who may be majoring in psychology or history or education, takes a few classes in a specific business or technology area, like data analysis. Then that student interns for the company while in school and agrees to work another year for them after graduating.
Five companies have agreed to take on 25 students, including Amway and Corewell Health.
Fewer degrees awarded
The state data used in the Bridge analysis also shows a dip in the number of total degrees awarded, though the drop — just about 1 percent — is far smaller than the 10 percent drop in enrollment that has startled some of Michigan’s four-year public universities.
A more pronounced drop occurred among those seeking associate degrees and certificates, with a 10 percent drop in associate degrees, from 23,300 to just under 21,000, and a 21 percent drop — from 10,000 to 7,900 — in certificates like those offered for nursing, criminal justice and skilled trades programs like metal working.
Those declines worry Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network. He fears the small drop in bachelor’s degrees will widen as the fall in enrollment leads to smaller graduating classes.
“I think the (drop) is yet to be felt,” he said.
Wages have risen in many fields and that may be dissuading some students from spending money on college or a certificate. Fewins-Bliss said that could be short-sighted, that everyone will need — or be rewarded — by getting some additional training, be it a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree or a certificate.
For instance, five years after getting a high school diploma (nothing further), the median annual wage is $27,400 in Michigan. For someone with a certificate or associate’s degree, it’s over $46,500 — and for someone who has earned a bachelor’s degree it’s $58,000.
It’s a “myth” that additional schooling isn’t necessary or that “college isn’t worth it,” he said.
“It got me to love STEM”
At Michigan Technological University in Houghton, first-year engineering student Maci Cornish is confident that focusing on STEM will be worth it for her.
She’s already lined up an internship and remains energized about her mechanical engineering major.
Her father is an engineer and her family always encouraged her that it was “hard but you can do it,” she said. And she said she got a big boost in high school in nearby Munising by competing in First Robotics, in which students build a robot to complete a different task each year.
“It got me to love STEM,” she said.
Now, as she looks around her classes, she sees more women than the college has had in the past — and more who are coming up. In 2018, 23 percent of engineering degrees at Tech went to women; it was 27 percent last year.
And Cornish said a current fellow Munising High School student who competed in First Robotics last year with Cornish is headed to Michigan Tech — because of Cornish.
The young woman sent Cornish a note recently, “telling me I was the reason she was going,” Cornish said.
See what new members are saying about why they donated to Bridge Michigan:
- “In order for this information to be accurate and unbiased it must be underwritten by its readers, not by special interests.” - Larry S.
- “Not many other media sources report on the topics Bridge does.” - Susan B.
- “Your journalism is outstanding and rare these days.” - Mark S.
If you want to ensure the future of nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan journalism, please become a member today. You, too, will be asked why you donated and maybe we'll feature your quote next time!