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Most Popular Majors and Why They Matter

Most Popular Majors and Why They Matter

Most students have a sense of the majors that are most popular amongst their peers in their high school. Many times this discussion has input from parents who draw on their career path or that of their colleagues. Neither of these viewpoints quite capture the majors which graduate the most number of students.

O's List measures the popularity of a major in terms of number of annual graduates with a bachelor’s degree in that subject area. This may be different from the "popular" majors which may be more driven by perception, peer assessment or by looking at a small data set.

It is important to not just look at the most popular majors, but also at the number of graduates in that major. In 2016, the top 5 majors by number of graduates were Business Administration and Management, Registered Nursing, Psychology, Biological Sciences and Accounting. Together, these majors graduated nearly 500,000 students in 2016! Of these, the top 3 majors: Business, Nursing and Psychology far outnumber the other majors by a large margin (as can be seen in Figure 1).

2016 graduates in the most popular majors
Figure 1: Most popular majors and their number of 2016 graduates across all colleges and universities (IPEDS Data analized by O's List).

Why is the number of graduates in each major so important? Why pay attention to it while considering majors? The reason is that the number of graduates gives a sense of multiple aspects of the major:

  • Is a snapshot of the choices of current graduates
  • The number of job seekers with that major
  • The ability of the job market to absorb graduates with that major
  • The graduate school possibilities
  • The number of colleges offering that major for undergraduate study
  • The competition and the perceived competition for getting accepted into that major at a college

Usually the choice of major by a student is dictated not only by personal choice but also the trends in the job market and the widespread availability of that major in colleges across the country. The widespread availability is a very important factor in the choice of the major, as that major has to be accessible to students irrespective of geography, academic profile and the economic profile of the student.

Something to keep in mind is that not all the most popular majors have a similar potential for getting jobs, salary or internships. There is quite a bit of variation depending on the kind of job, the pay in a particular industry as well as the geographic location of the job. Take a look at the salaries for different majors as reported by Payscale

It is informative to look at the numbers of students graduating in each major so that you can understand which colleges offer these majors and make informed choices after correlating it with acceptance and enrollment rate of the colleges.

Let’s do a dive into business administration…the most popular major and according to Payscale, a well paying major where the starting salary can range between $40,000–$58,000 per year. The colleges that graduate the most number of students in business are shown in the table below.

CollegeAdmission RateNumber of Business Graduates (2016)
California State University-Fullerton48%2,004
San Jose State University53%1,457
Western Governors University45%1,405
San Francisco State University68%1,302
San Diego State University35%1,217
California State Polytechnic University-Pomona59%1,214
University of Southern California17%1,055
Liberty University24%1,044
California State University-Long Beach32%1,033
California State University-Los Angeles64%1,029
Table 1: Colleges with the largest number of graduates in Business Administration and Management in 2016 (IPEDS Data).

Table 1 clearly illustrates that popular majors need to be accessible to a large number of students and are offered at many colleges. Business Administration is offered at 1,322 colleges, Nursing at 888 colleges and Psychology at 1,372 colleges!

As you start researching majors, it is important that you look into all the above reasons such as the number of colleges that offer the major, number of graduates in the major, the colleges that graduate the most number of students, the acceptance rate and the jog opportunities after graduation.