Major Shift

08/07/2009
By From the Lowell Sun

By Regina Tavani, Sun Staff

LOWELL -- Criminal justice and computer science, hot.

Finance, not so much.

Enrollment in career-oriented, "recession-proof" majors has soared at UMass Lowell, according to the university's Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

Those majors experiencing the highest increases in enrollment in one year include exercise physiology (up 38 percent), clinical lab sciences (up 41 percent), criminal justice (up 47 percent) and computer science (up 74 percent). The nursing program raised its cap on the number of students by 50 percent to meet increased interest.

Director of Admissions Kerri Johnston said far fewer incoming freshmen are enrolling as "undeclared" this year. Rather than floating aimlessly through their first year, "they're thinking about career options, and choosing majors that are going to provide these job opportunities after graduation," Johnston said.

Numbers in the undergraduate business program remain stable. Johnston said business has been traditionally viewed as a safe and practical discipline, but the financial crisis has made students hesitant to enter those fields, she said.

Among the most popular majors:

Criminal justice: Crime increases as the economy worsens, said department Chairwoman Eve Buzawa, meaning that criminal-justice professionals are needed more than ever. The department has added three visiting professors to the criminal-justice faculty in the fall, and added class sections.

Computer sciences: Since the burst of the dot-com bubble in 2000, enrollment had been dropping, said Computer Science Department Chairman Jie Wang.
But with the growth of social media, those with computer networking skills are in demand. Cybersecurity has become a hot area as well, given the increase in cyber-attacks in recent years.

UMass numbers reflect those across the country. The number of undergraduates majoring in computer science is once again on the rise nationwide, according to a recent study.

"People have finally realized that computing is a solid area to find employment right now," said Wang.

Clinical lab sciences: Within health care, clinical lab sciences is quickly becoming one of the most promising sectors for employment. Enrollment in UMass Lowell's program has doubled from last year.

"I've absolutely seen a boom of new students in the A and P labs," said Emily Rene, a 23-year-old master's student who received her bachelor's in medical technology from UMass Lowell last year. Rene is teaching summer lab sections in anatomy and physiology.

She had to open another section of the lab because it was overenrolled.

Kay Doyle, chairwoman of the Department of Clinical Laboratory and Nutrition Sciences and director of the school's Medical Technology Program, noted that she has been receiving e-mails from interested students from across the country -- often from those with degrees in the life sciences who are struggling to find employment.

Retiring workers, the aging of baby boomers and epidemics such as the swine flu have increased the need for people with clinical lab training. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a need for 15,000 professionals to enter the field annually; this past year, only 5,000 did.

Medical technicians, histotechnicians (those responsible for preparing tissue samples) and pathologists' assistants are in particular demand.

Though Rene's interest in clinical lab sciences developed long before the recession, she acknowledges that practicality and the recession likely play a role in the sudden boom of new students.

"No matter where you go, health care is always needed. I think people are finally realizing that," she said.

Johnston said students watching their parents and friends of parents lose their jobs over the last year played a significant role in the change.

"I'm impressed with the maturity of the frehmen coming in," she said. "They've done their research. I can't say that was the case five years ago."