Major Trends ; Criminal Justice, Religion, and Even Accounting Are among the Subjects Gaining Popularity on College Campuses, as Students Eye How Society's Needs Converge with Their Own Aspirations

Article excerpt

For Amanda Soland, a junior at Baylor University, there really was no question about what to declare as her major - she fell in love with forensic science last spring when she took a course on crime-scene investigation.

She had been pre-med. Now her focus is on catching criminals and helping victims' families.

Forensic science has become so popular at Baylor that the school in Waco, Texas, has had to set up a grade-point-average minimum and cap the number of students who major in it.

Other fields of study that have seen a new surge of life are criminal justice, nursing, religious studies, and, at several schools, even accounting.

Driven by corporate scandals, hit television shows, a homeland- security push, and post-"Gen-X" soul searching, many students are choosing majors that offer solutions to societal ills and, they hope, strong job prospects.

Trends in college majors, as in higher education generally, are typically slow to change. It can often take five years or more for student interest in a major to heat up or cool down.

So it's significant that about 17 percent of colleges and universities report sharply higher student interest in at least one of six college-major categories. That's according to a not-yet- published survey by Sallie Mae, the nation's largest student lender. It looked at a representative sample of about 300 two-year and four- year institutions.

"Anything above 10 percent, you're seeing a big change," says Lana Low, a senior executive with Noel-Levitz, the market-research division of Sallie Mae that conducted the survey.

It chose the six categories based on preliminary information gathered last fall. Of the schools that saw an increase in one or more of the categories, 60 percent reported a boost for criminal justice; 38 percent for health-related majors; 24 percent for social studies; 16 percent for faith-based studies; 14 percent for international studies; and 6 percent for aviation.

"These institutions have seen a lot of activity on their campuses since 9/11. So we looked, and lo and behold, we found change was indeed happening," Ms. Low says.

Curious about religion

Sallie Mae's numbers indicate a more modest rise in religion majors than has generally been reported in the news, Low says.

But the phenomenon is anything but subtle at Indiana University, Bloomington, where the number of students majoring in religious- studies jumped 50 percent in two years. The number of majors, 210, is the highest it's ever been.

Two years ago, Matt Riley was a biology major working hard toward medical school. He converted to religious studies after taking an introductory class called "Images of Jesus in Western culture."

"I had a variety of curiosities about the transformation and development of religion," he wrote in an e-mail interview. "I wanted answers about how something that seemed so simple and straightforward, such as the portrayal of the Christ figure, could have so many interpretations."

That fits with what Carolyn Dowd-Higgins, an adviser in the department, is seeing among many students.

"Islam classes have high enrollments, and the Sept. 11 attacks played a big part, but it started even before," she says. "Students are just more curious about things they don't know about."

Donald Braxton, chair of the religion department at Juniata College, a Protestant-affiliated liberal-arts college in Huntington, Pa., says the surge on his campus is partly linked to the waning of the "Gen-X" disaffected outlook on life.

"It's no longer satisfactory to just be ironic about life," he says.

At the University of South Florida, the number of religion majors nearly tripled, to about 80, in five years.

Dell deChant, director of undergraduate studies in religion, says religious themes in television dramas such as "ER" and "The Education of Max Bickford" may have had an influence. …