Photographer: Nick David/Getty Images

Fifty Years of Freshman Career Plans in Four Charts

A survey launched in the Johnson administration asks incoming college students about their professional intentions. Behold.

What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s what a survey that began half a century ago has asked incoming U.S. college freshmen, questioning them year after year about their probable occupations.

It’s one thing to ask a little kid, whose ambitions are untrammeled by such petty concerns as rent. The survey, by the Higher Education Research Institute, 1 The survey began at the American Council on Education and is now done by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles. It asks about intended careers among various other topics.  captures the intended careers of young men and women, in limbo between the fantasies of youth and the realities of adulthood.

As the holidays arrive and a new flock of freshmen look ahead to second semester, it’s instructive (and kind of fun) to dive into this trove of data, from the ’60s counterculture to the oil shocks of the ’70s, the rise of the internet, and, seven recessions later, the global financial crisis and recovery.

In the survey’s 50-year trends report (PDF), the top two intended fields in 2015 for full-time, first-year students starting at U.S. four-year colleges and universities were business, at 13.6 percent, and doctor (including dentist), at 11.6 percent. 2 The response options for the question on intended careers have changed over time. The Higher Education Research Institute puts intended career choices into what it calls “aggregated” categories in the 50-year trends report. The aggregated data are used in this paragraph. The business category mentioned here doesn’t include those intending to become administrative workers, who are in a separate grouping. Also, 11.3 percent of incoming freshmen in 2015 indicated that they were “undecided” about their intended careers.  Just 4.5 percent of last year’s freshmen foresaw careers in elementary or secondary education. Compare that with the data for 1966, in which a career in secondary school education tops the list, with business in second and doctor below engineer and elementary school educator. 3 There are data for “education (elementary)” and “education (secondary)” aggregated categories in 1966, but just for “education (elementary/secondary)” in 2015. If you add those two 1966 categories together, though, you get 23.3 percent of incoming freshmen intending to go into elementary or secondary education in 1966. The 1966 ranking in this paragraph doesn’t include “other,” at 21.3 percent, compared with 15.2 percent for secondary education. When comparing 1966 to 2015, it’s worth noting that there are data for just 13 aggregated categories (plus “other” and “undecided”) in 1966, vs. 21 aggregated categories (plus “other” and “undecided”) in 2015. The question was also asked differently in 1966.

And how do those intentions correspond with reality? Well, 10.3 percent of 2015’s incoming freshmen aspired to be doctors or surgeons, while only 1.5 percent of Americans with four or more years of college are, according to recent census data. The reverse is true of primary education: 2 percent of freshmen intended to be elementary school teachers, while 6.2 percent of Americans with at least four years of college are elementary and middle school teachers (as the U.S. Census Bureau labels the category). 4 The HERI figures used in this paragraph are the 2015 disaggregated career data, which is to say individual career options. The census data come from the 2010-2014 American Community Survey five-year estimates.

Career plans of American freshmen can dovetail in interesting ways with labor market forces. Interest in health care grew substantially between the late '60s and 2015, with aspirations to be a doctor or dentist more than doubling and intentions to go into other health professions also rising—aims that broadly track the aging of the U.S. population and the expansion of health spending as a part of the U.S. economy. 5 Part of this increase may be related to the survey: 4.8 percent of freshmen intended to be a “physician” in 1971 (the first year disaggregated career data are shown in the 50-year report), and 7.2 percent did in 2012. In 2013, the choice on the survey became “medical doctor/surgeon,” and the proportion of freshmen intending to go into it jumped to 9.9 percent (and 10.3 percent in 2015). The aggregated category combines doctors and dentists, but 1.0 percent of freshmen intended to be dentists or orthodontists in 1971, and 1.3 percent did in 2015. That individual choice merely changed from “dentist (including orthodontist)” to “dentist/orthodontist” from 2012 to 2013, with 1.2 percent of students selecting it in 2012, 1.4 percent in 2013, and 1.3 percent in 2015. The “health professional” field doesn’t those intending to become nurses, who are in a separate aggregated category.

Employment of physicians and surgeons is expected to grow much faster than average in coming years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the past quarter-century, the educational services and health-care and social assistance industries have seen the strongest employment growth, doubling in comparison to a 30 percent rise in overall non-farm employment, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

Still, young people select majors and careers suited to their values and interests, said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. In American higher education, “we put all the emphasis on going to college, getting in, and staying in, and meeting the course requirements to graduate,” and put little muscle into career counseling, said Carnevale. “We don’t pay much attention to what they’re going to do after breakfast the first 45 years after they graduate.”

Many entering freshmen haven’t decided what they want to major in, let alone what they’re going to do for a living. Majors and jobs don’t always align, and people change careers. The best intentions don’t always come to fruition—organic chemistry is hard, even if you’re desperate to save lives.

With that in mind, let’s take a look back at millions of young people looking forward.

Here’s a closer view of the incoming class in 2015 (PDF). (Just click on the top right-hand corner to expand the chart.) Some intended occupations were much more common among women than men or among freshmen entering schools grouped as more or less selective. 6 See the methodology section for information on selectivity and on the data used for the horizontal axis.

FRESHMEN1CMS

Freshmen are indecisive. That’s clear above, where “undecided” is shown as common to both men and women, at 10.6 and 12.0 percent in 2015, and below, where more than 10 percent of incoming freshmen had no particular career in mind in all but a few years. Also, a healthy chunk of incoming freshmen throughout the years—as high as 20.2 percent in 1969 and as low as 12.1 percent in 2012—guessed there was a “very good chance” they’d change career choice.

The 2015 data reflect women aspiring to be doctors or surgeons, registered nurses, therapists (physical, occupational, and so forth), engineers, research scientists, and lawyers or judges, to take the first half-dozen intended careers in order. For men, the top six choices were engineer, doctor or surgeon, computer programmer or developer, business manager or executive, finance professional, and business owner or entrepreneur, tied with research scientist. 7 This paragraph uses the 2015 disaggregated career data, and excludes “other,” “undecided,” and “military” from the rankings.  

FRESHMEN2CMS

The chart above also shows that business as an intended career area has expanded and contracted. Turning to intended major, which the survey also covers, the percentage of students citing business as their probable field of study rose over the survey’s early decades, stumbled after 1987, recovered a bit, and fell to 13.5 percent of incoming freshmen last year, its lowest since 1973. Nonetheless, business was the most popular career field in 2015, though it’s not as common a choice as it once was and dipped with the Great Recession. 8 This paragraph and the next look at aggregated categories for probable field of study and career.

As you can see both above and below, doctor has been in vogue lately. Last year, 13.2 percent of female freshmen and 9.6 percent of male freshmen intended to be doctors (including dentists). 9 The career options were considerably altered in 2013, including various name changes and the addition of several new choices. The change from “physician” to “medical doctor/surgeon,” and the rise in popularity for that option, is detailed in footnote 5. Also perhaps important was the change from “homemaker (full-time)” to “homemaker/stay-at-home parent,” and the jump from 0.1 to 1.3 percent of freshmen intending that as their career from 2012 to 2013 (though it was down to 0.7 percent in 2015). Interest in majoring in the biological sciences, as well as in engineering, has also increased recently.

FRESHMEN3CMS

Jobs aren’t standing still, as technology and a more global economy transform the labor market.

“The best thing is for a person to be well-rounded in a subject they really want to study so they can get deep knowledge in it, and be trained with broad skills so they can continually adapt,” said Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute and executive director of the Career Services Network at Michigan State University. “Everything’s changing so fast that if you focus just on getting a degree that will get a job,” three or four years after graduation “it could be gone or it could be changed or the organization changes.” So major in something you “really really like,” he said.

Over the past half-century, though, the share of incoming freshmen who consider “being very well off financially” to be “essential” or “very important” has grown. One thing today’s college students seem to really really like is money. 

FRESHMEN4_2_CMS
 

Methodology

In the 50-year trends report, the Higher Education Research Institute puts intended career choices into what it calls “aggregated” categories, while also providing “disaggregated” data. The aggregated categories are used in parts of the text, as well as in the second, third, and fourth charts.

Our analysis of occupation intentions doesn’t take into account 1973-1975, for which the 50-year report doesn’t include probable career data.

In the introduction, the recent census data come from the 2010-2014 American Community Survey five-year estimates.

The population of schools covered by the 50-year report is “all institutions of higher education admitting first-time, first-year students and granting a baccalaureate-level degree or higher listed in the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System ([IPEDS], formerly referred to as the Higher Education General Information Survey [HEGIS]),” according to the research methodology section. The methodology also notes that “part-time students and those who are not first-time college students (i.e., transfers and former enrollees) were excluded from the normative sample.”

In the first chart, Intended Occupations of College Freshmen, the left- and right-hand labels, Low Selectivity Institutions and Very High Selectivity Institutions, are asymmetric because of underlying sample sizes. The chart looks at 2015 and compares two broad sets of selectivity data.

The first set is intended careers for incoming freshmen at all institutions grouped, within their institution type, as low or very low selectivity. This includes low-selectivity public universities, public four-year colleges, private nonsectarian four-year colleges, Catholic four-year colleges, and other religious four-year colleges grouped as very low or low selectivity. There is no low or very low group for private universities, so students at those institutions aren’t included on the low end.

The second set of data is intended careers for incoming freshmen at all institutions grouped as very high selectivity. This includes very highly selective private universities and private nonsectarian four-year colleges. There is no very high group for public universities, public four-year colleges, Catholic four-year colleges, or other religious four-year colleges, so students at those institutions aren’t included on the very high end. 

Students at predominantly black schools aren’t included because those data aren’t broken out by selectivity.

Selectivity, “used to group schools to develop population weights,” according to HERI, is based on scores from standardized tests (SAT, ACT). “The dividing lines between low, medium and high selectivity levels are different for different types of institutions,” cautions the 2015 report’s research methodology (PDF), “and should not be used as a measure of institutional or program quality.” 

Not all career options are represented in the first chart.

The third chart, the Year the Most Freshmen Wanted to Be, looks at when an aggregated career category saw the largest share of incoming freshmen intending to pursue it, based on all the years in which data for that aggregated category are available. Data aren’t available for all aggregated categories in every year, and not all categories are represented in this chart.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE