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BA Growth Trend: Sociology Overtakes Economics

by Roberta Spalter-Roth, Director

ASA Research Program on the Profession and the Discipline

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The number of Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees awarded in sociology is an indictor of the health and well being of the academic profession. Sociology is more dependent on undergraduate students as its material base than some other comparable social science disciplines. As Figure 1 shows more than nine out of 10 of the degrees awarded in 1997 were Bachelor’s degrees. This ratio has remained constant since the mid-1960s, during years of decline and growth in the number of BAs awarded. The number of new BAs awarded in sociology peaked in 1973, with a high of 35,996 and bottomed in 1985 with a low of 12,165. The number of new BAs rebounded slowly during the remainder of the 1980s. In the 1990s the growth rate became more dramatic.

As Table 1 shows, from 1991 through 1997, the number of sociology BAs grew from 17,632 to 24,750, for an increase of 40 percent. During the same time period, the number of BAs awarded in political science and economics fell. Political science, which awarded the most BAs of the three disciplines, experienced a 15 percent drop, and economics experienced a 30 percent drop. In fact, the number of BAs awarded in economics and in sociology reversed almost exactly over the seven-year period. By 1997, almost 25,000 BAs were awarded in sociology in contrast to only 17,700 in economics.

Some pundits suggest that, under current circumstances of academic restructuring, the growth in sociology BAs will result in an increased hiring of adjunct faculty or a decrease in PhD selectivity in order to have enough teachers for undergraduates. Although this scenario is possible, our own prior research suggests that BA growth in sociology during the 1990s has stimulated additional growth. Data show a moderate increase in applicants to graduate sociology departments, a greater selectivity in graduate school acceptances, a higher share of graduate students receiving funding, a modest increase in the number of new PhDs, an increase in Employment Bulletin job listings for new PhDs, and an increased share of academic departments hiring new faculty.2  The increase in sociology BAs appears to be a sign of increased vigor at all stages of the academic pipeline.

 1Sociology awarded a higher percentage of its degrees to Bachelor’s of Arts or Sciences than did either economics (81percent) or political science (only 70 percent because fully 25 percent of political science degrees are awarded as Masters Degrees mostly in Public Policy or Public Administration).

2Some of these data can be seen in “After the Fall” in the February 1998 issue of Footnotes, some are unpublished data from the 1997-98 Graduate Department Survey presented at Chairs conferences and Graduate Director’s meetings at ASA annual meetings.