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Behind the Numbers: Exploring the Trends and Changes in This Year’s Major Declarations

All PostsNewsBehind the Numbers: Exploring the Trends and Changes in This Year’s Major Declarations

story | Dion Ho, Senior Writer

photo | Dion Ho; Yale-NUS Data Science


On April 6, 2018, The Octant published the major declaration statistics for the Class of 2020. This article serves as a follow-up with additional statistical analysis as well as opinions from various faculty members on the statistics.

For purpose of analysis, the students in the Double Degree Program with Law (DDP) will be excluded from the statistics. This is because most DDP students do not declare a major in Yale-NUS while some others do, which creates the possibility of double-counting.

Diversity in Choice of Major

The percentage composition of major declarations per Class since the Class of 2017 with average value indicated (the Double Degree Program with Law is excluded).

A significant change in this year’s major declaration statistics is the decrease in the diversity of declared majors, with Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and Mathematical, Computational and Statistical Sciences (MCS) major declarations forming almost 40% of the Class of 2020. I will quantify the inequality in major declarations using a Gini Coefficient, which is traditionally used to measure income inequality. An important feature of the Gini Coefficient is that the total number of students in each batch has no impact on its value, allowing us to compare between the four batches. A Gini Coefficient of 0 indicates that students are evenly split across all 14 majors: contextualized to the Class of 2020, it means that exactly 13 students declared each major. A higher Gini Coefficient indicates greater inequality, and thus less diversity.

The Gini Coefficients of the Classes of 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 are 0.255, 0.207, 0.208 and 0.355 respectively. The statistically significant spike in Gini Coefficient this year indicates a significant decrease in the diversity of declared majors. However, it must be emphasized that, since we are comparing across a small number of categories (14 majors), small shifts can have significant impact on the Gini Coefficient. Furthermore, with only four years of data available, conclusions must be taken with some reservations.

Each of the 14 majors should on average capture approximately 7% of the total students. However, the number of Environmental Studies, PPE and MCS major declarations have been consistently above this average, while Life Sciences, Literature, Philosophy, and Physical Sciences have been below average.

Trends Across Disciplines

Cumulative percentage composition of Major Declarations in each discipline across the four Classes. Values do not add up to 100% due to interdisciplinary majors. Analysis by Yale-NUS Data Science Society.

Yale-NUS Data Science’s analysis has revealed that major declarations in the Social Sciences have remained relatively constant across the four years. There however appears to be a negative correlation between the Sciences and the Humanities with regard to major declarations. The former’s steady increase has been paired with the latter’s steady decrease, with the exception of the Class of 2020.

Whether the negative correlation implies a shifting preference from the Humanities to the Sciences is difficult to tell from the limited data available. Notably, the overall major declarations in all three disciplines (Sciences, Humanities, Social Sciences) increased for the Class of 2020.

The steady increase of major declarations in the Sciences can largely be attributed to the steady increase in the number of students who declare an MCS major each year. Similarly, the trends seen in the number of new Humanities and Social Science students mostly parallel the trends in PPE major declarations, which count towards both disciplines. The especially precipitous drop in new Humanities students from the Class of 2019, as compared to the Class of 2018, can mostly be attributed to the plummet in PPE declarations last year. This year’s resurgence of major declarations in the Social Sciences, and especially in the Humanities, follows the resurgence in PPE declarations.

Responses from Faculty

Director of the Division of Social Sciences Professor John Driffill said that the popularity of PPE could be partly explained by its flexibility. “In the early days, some students may have declared PPE to keep their options open,” he said. He added that in the review of PPE that was performed around Nov. 2016, a few changes were made that probably had the effect of discouraging students from declaring PPE as their major in this scenario. This could explain the drop in PPE declarations from the Class of 2019, although Mr. Driffill said that the actual drop was larger than expected.

With regard to the surge in the number of PPE declarations this year, Mr. Driffill said: “I’m flabbergasted, 34 is way more than expected.” Nonetheless, Mr. Driffill said that the PPE faculty is fully capable of accommodating the surge of new students. Mr. Driffill explained that PPE is able to draw upon a broad range of faculty from Philosophy, Global Affairs, Economics and so on. “Adding up all PPE-related faculty, we have about 30,” said Mr. Driffill. He also stated that many faculty members are cross-listed across different majors.

Head of Studies (HoS) for MCS, Professor Jon Berrick said that “since most MCS majors have migrated to MCS only during their time at the College, it’s been difficult for the College to anticipate the demand.” Nonetheless, he said the MCS faculty is doing its best to address this.

According to Mr. Berrick, Maria De Iorio, Professor of Biostatistics in the Department of Statistical Science at University College London, will be joining the College in August as the new HoS for MCS. He also said that in the coming weeks, the MCS faculty hopes to fill a position in computer science, and they are currently negotiating to receive a visiting statistics professor from Yale University.

HoS for Urban Studies, Professor Jane Jacobs, shared that her faculty members were delighted at the high number of students who declared an Urban Studies major last year, though they did not assume it to herald a consistent trend. This year’s drop did not come as a surprise to them.

Nonetheless, the Urban Studies faculty has discussed the lower percentage composition of Urban Studies declarations this year. They attribute the decrease partly to the fact that many familiar faculty were on leave in Academic Year (AY) 2017/18. “We are sure student interest in the major will grow once we welcome the full Urban Studies faculty team on board across AY2018/19,” said Ms. Jacobs. She stated that the Urban Studies faculty has just finished a recruitment round and the arrival of new faculty will bring more diverse offerings that will increase student interest.

Both Mr. Driffill and Ms. Jacobs said that the major declaration statistics do not tell the full story. Ms. Jacobs said that Urban Studies courses are popular electives and “many students in the College who are not Urban Studies majors take them.” She also said that “the change in student numbers will have no impact on the plans of Urban Studies.”

In addition, Mr. Driffill said that “it’s good to remember that major requirements only make up one-third of the courses a student studies in Yale-NUS. Another one-third is in the common curriculum, and one-third is for [electives]”.

Asked whether the clustering of students in PPE is concerning, Dr. Driffill said: “If it continues, yes. But it’s just one year of data. Maybe [current HoS of PPE, Professor Andrew Bailey] did a great job of promoting PPE.”

Nonetheless, he said that Yale-NUS will want to encourage more academic diversity. He also said that while Yale-NUS seeks to accommodate student demand, “student demand is not the only driver of faculty allocations.”

This article was written in collaboration with Yale-NUS Data Science.

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