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Hottest College Majors

Sandra Guy, www.fastweb.com

The hottest majors for today's college students reflect traditional high-paying careers as well as trendy programs in fast-growing industries.

According to demand for the degrees measured by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), tops on the list of hottest majors, in order, are:

  • mechanical engineering
  • electrical engineering
  • accounting
  • business administration/management
  • economics/finance
  • computer science
  • information sciences and systems
  • marketing/marketing management
  • computer engineering
  • chemical engineering

according to NACE's Job Outlook 2006 report. Today's economy requires that college graduates be savvy in technology, engineering and computer science, so those jobs are always in demand, say college and career services officials.

Other global trends are showing up in the popularity of majors like accounting and specialized fields of engineering. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, passed by Congress in the wake of Enron and other corporate scandals, requires businesses to adhere to strict financial accounting controls. At the same time, homeowners have taken advantage of historically low mortgage rates to refinance their mortgage loans. The result has been a surge in demand for accounting majors and financial analysts, said Andrea Koncz, employment information manager for NACE. Koncz said she is noticing a heightened demand for students majoring in geology and petroleum engineering due to the need to find new oil reserves and increase production at existing oil fields.

Liberal arts majors also are in demand, in part because of surges in the popularity of industries such as tourism, hospitality, consulting and the culinary arts. Employers who recruit students at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, are looking for students who have completed internships and who demonstrate strong analytical and presentation skills, said Lonnie Dunlap, director of university career services at Northwestern. “We don't link a major with a career in a narrow way,” Dunlap said. Students who major in the creative arts also are finding strong niches, such as handling marketing, media relations and fundraising for arts organizations, she said. Furthermore, liberal arts majors’ salaries, though not as high as business and engineering majors', have stayed steady, avoiding the ups and downs of the computer industry, said Koncz.

Indeed, majors that have seen some of the largest increases in average starting salaries are hospitality services management, up 9.7 percent to $36,480; business administration / management, up 6.3 percent to $42,048; and civil engineering, up 5.4 percent to $46,023. The top jobs for 2005-06 graduates based on the number of offers varied widely, with sales ($38,343); management trainee ($39,501); financial/treasury analysis ($46,448); teaching ($31,408); and project engineering ($49,888) topping the list, according to the NACE Summer 2006 Salary Survey.

James Tarbox, director of career services at San Diego State University, said students majoring in teaching and government are in demand, and can benefit from the job security that their career fields offer. New majors are popping up at colleges to take advantage of the trends. San Diego State is considering an undergraduate emphasis in educational technology because of the popularity of online classwork and computers in the classroom, Tarbox said.

Elmhurst College in west suburban Chicago has introduced this Fall a new major in computer game and entertainment technology. The new coursework recognizes that computer multimedia — graphics, sound, music — are widespread not only in computer games but in areas ranging from animated movies to medical imaging to interactive simulation systems used in education and training, said William Muellner, the chairman of Elmhurst's computer science department who developed the degree program.

College officials warn students to focus on building skills in whatever major they choose, but especially in trendy coursework which may not focus on the traditional skills taught in other majors. William Reynolds, provost of the Washburne Culinary Institute, the oldest cooking school in Chicago, said Washburne tripled its student enrollment to meet heightened demand when it moved to a bigger facility in September 2007. The demand is great, even though the Chicago area has seen an explosion in new culinary school courses. Yet Reynolds cautions students to take a sober look at how difficult and competitive the culinary profession can be, especially if students dream of opening their own restaurants. “The younger students are enthralled with the celebrity chef-dom of television, from ‘Iron Chef' on down the line,” Reynolds said. “There are very few of those positions available. ... Just because a student likes to cook doesn't mean he or she has the mentality to work in the restaurant industry. It is stressful, involves long hours and you are always on your feet.”