Think UC Irvine and most often what comes to mind is science, computers and engineering. New programs in neurobiology and molecular biology. Nobel Prize winners in physics and chemistry.
But by far the largest number of the 4,010 undergraduate degrees awarded today will be handed out not to budding scientists but to seniors from the School of Social Sciences, which contains the disciplines of economics, political science, psychology and sociology. In fact, the proportion of students receiving bachelor's degrees in social sciences has grown from 28.6% in 1994 to 38.2% this year.
"That growth is substantial and the most dramatic feature of UCI enrollment," said William Schonfeld, the dean of the School of Social Sciences.
Meanwhile, the number of students receiving degrees in biological sciences plummeted during that period from 22.5% to 13.6%
The trend doesn't seem to have reached other universities. At UC Berkeley, for instance, the proportion of students receiving social-science degrees has remained a steady 25% for at least two decades.
The answer to what is happening at UCI appears as varied as the people you ask, from the cyclical nature of student interests to a return to the natural order of things. Even long-timers at UCI, with knowledge of past trends, give different answers.
Schonfeld said UCI's reputation for science and technology has its advantages when it comes to fund-raising. "People are more likely [to] give $100 million for a cancer center than $5 million for a center on race and poverty," he said.
The social sciences traditionally have turned out the most university graduates across the country. For starters, less of that icky math is required, and many students who can't cut the hard sciences turn to psychology or anthropology. That could explain why there are more social-science students than those interested in biology when freshmen start at UCI.
Furthermore, social-science majors traditionally are the ones that prepare students for futures in public policy, law, business or counseling.
At UCI, the removal of caps on the number of psychology and economics majors, which existed for several years in the '90s, is responsible for part of the growth in social sciences. But the School of Social Sciences is more than those two subjects.
Some of the drop-off in biology can be explained by increased interest in computer sciences, a field that has taken off with recent technological advances. "Twenty years ago, physics was the area to be in," said William Parker, UCI's vice chancellor of research and dean of graduate studies. "Then, biological sciences moved to the forefront. Beginning five years ago, computer science is where the intellectual students go. It's still science. I think we're seeing a normal cycle."
Parker said that during the mid-'90s UCI probably had the largest percentage of biological-science majors in the country. But laboratories and other facilities are expensive, Parker said, and the school took steps limiting the number of students.
Schonfeld thinks part of the reason for the drop is that pre-med students who swarm to biology learn they can major in almost any subject and be admitted to medical school, as long as they pass the required science courses.
Furthermore, he said that when freshman arrive on campus, they find there are fields they know little about, including the social sciences. Although some social-sciences courses are taught in high school, they are a new frontier for many freshman.
Ultimately, Parker said, majors will continue to shift.
"Inevitable oscillations occur in student interests," he said. "In the last 30 years, we've seen engineering have its peaks and valleys and social ecology. I think you're seeing biological sciences going from a peak to a valley . . . in three to five years you'll see biological sciences go up."
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Bachelor's Degrees Granted
The proportion of UCI students receiving bachelors degrees in social sciences has grown from 28.6% of graduates in 1994 to 38.2% this year. Much of the gain appears to have come at the expense of the School of Biological Sciences, where the proportion of students receiving bachelors degrees has plummeted, from 22.5% to 13.6%.
'90 - 18.6% (515 students)
'91 - 19.8%
'92 - 19.2%
'93 - 20.2%
'94 - 22.5%
'95 - 25.9%
'96 - 25.5%
'97 - 26%
'98 - 22.9%
'99 - 18.7%
'00 - 14.3%
'01 - 13.6% (477 students)
'90 - 35% (967 students)
'91 - 35.1%
'92 - 34.7%
'93 - 31.6%
'94 - 28.6%
'95 - 27.8%
'96 - 28.1%
'97 - 27.2%
'98 - 27.5%
'99 - 30.4%
'00 - 36.5%
'01 - 38.2% (1,532 students)