Skip to main content

UW’s 5 hottest majors: Student demand, workforce trends drive enrollment gains

February 7, 2023 By Bill Graf

Students follow along with the lecture on their laptop computers in Chemistry 103 in Agricultural Hall. Photo: Althea Dotzour

For 175 years, UW–Madison has relentlessly worked to make Wisconsin a better place by strengthening the economy, unlocking medical and scientific innovations, and creating pathways to success for all Wisconsinites. From February through June, we will highlight UW–Madison’s impact on the state, and this month we are showcasing how Badgers are getting a career-ready education from day one. Follow along using #CantStopABadger on social media. Your support can help us continue this work.

Higher education is constantly evolving to reflect the changing interests of students and specialized needs of employers. At UW–Madison, the majors with the greatest enrollment growth are a good barometer of the university’s responsiveness to these trends.

“Student demand plays a major role,” says Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs John Karl Scholz. “But it is also the case that the leadership, staff and faculty of the schools and colleges are constantly revising curriculum to improve and adapt.”

The undergraduate majors adding the most students from fall 2018 to fall 2022 are:

No. 1: Data Science (+914 since inception in 2019)

“Our world increasingly depends on data and computing to produce knowledge and to make decisions, and we have seen an intense demand from students for these skills,” says Yazhen Wang, professor and chair of the Department of Statistics. Both Data Science and Computer Sciences reside in the School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences (CDIS), formed in 2019 to combine existing programs in statistics, computer sciences and the iSchool with new offerings in emerging fields.

No. 2: Computer Sciences (+642)

“We are proud to not only have one of the fastest growing majors, but also the largest,” said Computer Sciences Department Chair Remzi Arpaci-Dusseau. “The key is to ensure a positive experience for every student looking to gain the skills need to succeed in the digital age. To do so, we’ve redeveloped our entry level courses and hired more teaching faculty, advisors and staff.”

No. 3: Consumer Behavior and Marketplace Studies (+410 over the previous Retailing and Consumer Behavior major)

“Today’s students are seeking not only lucrative jobs, but also work they find meaningful and fulfilling,” says Annette McDaniel, associate dean for undergraduate education and innovation in the School of Human Ecology. “Our program is attracting students who want to positively influence global commerce and technology from a people-first perspective, blending business, analytics and technology with creativity and empathy.”

No. 4: Psychology (+363)

“Psychologists are in demand as mental health continues to be a concern worldwide. But Psychology is an incredibly versatile major, offering our students the skills needed to flourish in a variety of careers from health care to law, business, teaching, conservation and so much more,” says Allyson Bennett, psychology professor and chair of the psychology department.

No. 5: Global Health (+357 since inception in 2019)

Housed in the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences, the Global Health major spans bioscience and public health as they intersect with climate change, food systems, disease ecology and other issues. “There’s an emphasis on empathy, cultural awareness and humility, and on collaborative efforts to improve health at the population level — across the ocean or in our own backyard,” says Entomology Professor Susan Paskewitz, who helped develop the major.

Rounding out the top 10 majors in enrollment growth since 2018 are:

No. 6: Mechanical Engineering (+316)

No. 7: Health Promotion and Health Equity (+240)

No. 8: Business: Supply Chain Management (+219)

No. 9: Computer Engineering (+163)

No. 10: Personal Finance (+162)

Of course, the number of students is not the only way to view which majors are trending upward. There are smaller programs, ranging from Legal Studies to Wildlife Ecology, that are surging in percentage terms relative to their size. But for this ranking, we’re going with actual “headcount enrollment.”

In addition, some majors, such as those in the College of Engineering and the School of Nursing, remain in heavy demand but growth is limited by capacity, meaning there’s not enough faculty and facilities to accommodate more students.

Scholz credits the deans and academic advisers in UW–Madison’s schools and colleges with keeping the university’s offerings relevant and responsive. “They do this,” he says, “through constant engagement with students, networking across higher education and through connections with alumni, external advisory boards and employers.”

Enjoy this story?

Subscribe to the Wisconsin Idea newsletter