2021 and what they’ll study

Today and tomorrow, many future members of the class of ’21 are visiting campus for the first time since they’ve been accepted or for the first time ever. During SwatStruck they’ll have the chance to meet current students, talk to academic departments, and encounter almost every single one of the college’s incredibly numerous student groups. They’ll be trying to figure out if Swarthmore is the best school for them or, if they already know, what they’ll be in for the next four years. But while they’re doing that, the current student body will be wondering something entirely different: who are these people?
A press release published by the college on March 21st contains the primary publicly available profile of the admitted class. It provides some basic statistics on the 960 newly admitted students; 25% of them are first generation college students, 60% come from public schools, and 94% were ranked in the top decile of their high school. The press release also contains an overview of the range of nations and U.S. states the admitted students represent, as well as a description of what the class of 2021 is interested in majoring in.
“Engineering is the most popular intended major among the admitted students. Next, in order, are political science, biology, economics, computer science, English literature, mathematics, psychology, biochemistry, and physics,” the admissions department wrote.
At first glance this may seem to indicate a significant shift in the student academic distribution; engineering is not, in fact, currently the most popular student major. In fact, engineering has not been in the top five majors of any of the graduating classes of the last 10 years, suggesting that typically less than 8% of Swarthmore students graduate as engineering majors. However, reviewing the new class admission press releases of previous years indicates that engineering is almost always the most popular intended major.
This means that this years’ ranking of intended majors probably doesn’t indicate that the college is about to experience a new wave of engineering majors. Maybe many students will arrive believing they want to be engineers, but the past trends indicate most of them will have moved to different fields by graduation.
Joshua Freier ’20 was one such first year this year. He was interested in pursuing an engineering major when he applied, but has since decided he would rather major in other departments.
“I applied here thinking that Engineering would allow me to study math, science and computer science without having to specify too much, but instead I felt like I was learning less and wasting more time than if I had just taken math, science and computer science classes,” said Freier.
Freier pointed to factors that separate the engineering department from other departments, like the significantly larger than average requirement of 12 engineering courses along with 8 non-engineering prerequisites.
“I am thinking of pursuing a music and computer science double major because those are the areas I have found to be most interesting to me so far, but I am also planning on taking more classes outside of those two disciplines next year, a luxury I couldn’t do as an engineering major,” said Freier.
Jim Bock ’90, Vice President and Dean of Admissions also noted that many students, not only engineering students, end up switching from their intended majors after they take courses in a variety of departments. He also noted that this year’s distribution of intended majors was largely consistent with previous years, which is supported by the above graph.
Following historic patterns, we anticipate that once on campus many of our admitted students will explore the Swarthmore curriculum, some landing on their original intended major, and others deciding to study in-depth in new fields. The distribution of academic interests in the admitted cohort is similar to years past, and we do not yet know the range of academic interests for the enrolling cohort,” said Bock.
After engineering, the most popular majors, both this year and in previous years, are economics, political science, and biology. This is also very consistent with the majors of graduating senior classes, as these three majors are perennially the most popular majors at Swarthmore.
One new trend that is clear in both the majors of graduating seniors and intended majors of admitted students is the growth of the computer science program. The college’s increased graduation and admission of computer science majors could reflect either a national trend towards greater interest in computer science or the growing reputation of the college’s computer science program. Although there is widespread concern that emphasis on STEM subjects such as computer science could decrease interest in the humanities, the most popular humanities major, English literature, is still garnering a consistent level of admitted intended majors. Additionally, many students studying STEM subjects may opt for a second major in the humanities.
“I do know for a few years that about a third of our admitted cohort expressed a first or second choice major interest in the humanities. In addition, “undecided” remains a popular option for many of our admitted students and continues to be a popular choice for enrolling students as well,” said Bock.
The above graph actually shows a very sharp drop in the popularity of the “undecided” major starting with the class of 2019, but this is actually a feature of how the college has decided to report their admitted students intended majors than “undecided” actually becoming a less popular intended major.
“We stopped including it in the public release at some point, because “undecided” is not technically a major, and we could add another department in,” said Bock. “I include it in my first-year welcome talk because it’s fun and not everyone has their life figured out during orientation, of course, and we’re a liberal arts college after all.”
As Bock noted, although the press release for intended majors for the class of 2019 did not include the “undecided” major, at first-year orientation programming, the class of 2019 was actually told that “undecided” was their most popular intended major. The disappearance of the “undecided” major from the annual press releases simply indicates that the college has opted to paint a clearer picture of the fields admitted students are interested in than remind the world that Swarthmore students are, as always, interested in a wide variety of subjects and don’t necessarily have everything figured out. The great news for the class of 2021 is that it’s completely alright if they don’t have everything figured out!
It is wonderful that at Swarthmore students are not locked into a choice based on what they entered into their Coalition, Common, or QuestBridge application.  We look forward to welcoming another amazing Class to Swarthmore,” said Bock.

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