Trends respond to culture, workforce


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On the surface, the fields of pharmacy, environmental studies and criminal justice may not seem to have much in common.

But on college campuses, all three have soared in popularity in recent years, leading area colleges to identify them as "hot" majors.

Like pegged jeans and aviator sunglasses, majors can come in and out of fashion among college students.

Over the course of his career, Paul-James Cukanna has seen jumps in students interested in law after the television show "LA Law" became popular in the 1980s, medicine after the success of "ER" in the '90s and forensic science after "CSI" debuted this decade.

"We've seen how events in modern culture and popular life can affect the popularity of majors," said Mr. Cukanna, associate vice president for enrollment management and director of admissions at Duquesne University.

But he's also noted how majors can respond to needs in the workforce -- such as computer science during the dot-com boom or accounting as a result of Congressional action after the Enron collapse.

And the economy, specifically a boom in the health care field, seems to be at least part of the reason for a 25 percent increase in pharmacy majors at Duquesne from last school year to this year. Nationally, enrollments in "first professional degree" pharmacy programs have risen 47 percent, from 34,481 in 2000 to 50,691 in 2007, according to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy.

Elizabeth native Jonathan Ogurchak chose pharmacy over other interests, such as architecture, because it offered the potential for both an attractive salary and the regular hours and flexibility that would allow him to spend lots of time with his family.

In the six years that he's been a pharmacy major at Duquesne -- the school's doctor of pharmacy degree is a six-year program -- Mr. Ogurchak, 23, has noticed classes becoming more crowded.

"The whole scope of pharmacy as a career has changed in the past 10 years, from the guy behind the counter who gives you pills to being more patient-centered," he said. "Maybe they were afraid of blood and didn't want to be a doctor, but can still get that taste of being in the health care profession."

And the paycheck doesn't hurt, either.

Duquesne's Web site lists a 100 percent job placement rate, with starting salaries between $75,000 and $100,000. As its popularity has increased, Duquesne's pharmacy program also has become increasingly competitive, drawing students from many states outside Pennsylvania, Mr. Cukanna said.

In addition to pharmacy, Duquesne has seen booms in health sciences majors, which include programs in physical therapy, athletic training and occupational therapy, Mr. Cukanna said.

Chatham University has a new focus on a different type of science major: environmental science and environmental studies. Both have grown in recent years.

In its first year as a major in 2007, environmental science drew five students, while environmental studies increased from four majors in 2003 to eight majors in 2007.

"Al Gore's film really had a huge impact," said Laura Armesto, vice president for academic affairs. "I think a lot of young people really want to do something for the environment. They understand much better than older people that it's urgent and critical."

Chatham is making a showpiece of its environmental programs by hosting classes such as "The Environmental Consumer" and "Ecofeminist Literature" at the school's new 388-acre "eco-campus" on the site of the Eden Hall Farm in Richland. Chatham received the land for the campus as a gift this summer from the Eden Hall Foundation, which had used the space as a retreat for working women.

Overall, Chatham's most popular majors are psychology and biology.

If Al Gore has influenced Chatham students, the effects from the television show "CSI" can still be felt at the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford, which counts criminal justice among its top five majors.

Pitt-Bradford is attemping to turn criminal justice into one of its flagship majors and spent more than $100,000 over the summer renovating an on-campus house that formerly housed the psychology department to turn it into the "CSI House."

In the house, professor Tony Gaskew stages homicide, sexual assault and kidnapping crime scenes for students in his criminal forensics classes to process and investigate. As if they were law enforcement officers, students write subpoenas, applications for search warrants and police reports.

"This allows students to be more educated before entering an agency," said Dr. Gaskew, who worked in law enforcement -- including on a joint federal and state organized crime drug task force in Florida -- before becoming a professor.

"You have a 23- or 22-year-old student who's already mastered the basics of conducting a homicide investigation," he said. "As a law enforcement agent, I never received an opportunity to apply the skills the undergrads are learning right now until I was an investigator for seven or eight years."

The number of criminal justice majors at Bradford is about 17 percent higher than it was before the show "CSI" debuted.

At the University of Pittsburgh's main campus, one particular group of students -- women -- is helping to make bioengineering a hot major. Unlike other engineering disciplines at Pitt, 45.3 percent of bioengineering undergrads are women, department chair Harvey Borovetz said.

The major is only 10 years old at Pitt -- the first major added to the Swanson School of Engineering in 75 years, said Dr. Borovetz, who believes that the human element of bioengineering might be what's drawing in women.

"What attracts students are the opportunities to be involved in science and engineering that have a direct, potential benefit for mankind," he said. He also noted that -- considering the aging population -- bioengineering is one of the largest growing fields of employment.

Another fast-growing area at Pitt related to employment opportunities is Latin American studies. Technically a certificate program instead of a major, Latin American studies requires three years of college-level Spanish or Portuguese and a six-week study experience in Latin America.

Enrollments in the certificate program hit 420 students in the spring 2008 semester, up from fewer than 300 students four years ago.

"The majority of students are in it because of the intellectual interest they have in Latin America, but we have an increasing number of students seeing the certificate as a credential they can use to be competitive in the job market," said Kathleen DeWalt, director of Pitt's Center for Latin American Studies.

The certificate draws students interested in fields such as law, medicine, engineering and education, she said.

A focus on employment is typical during economic downturns, Mr. Cukanna said, and students tend to buckle down and focus on majors that will lead most directly to job offers.

"When the economy's tight, people become very astute as to 'What am I going to get out of this four-year experience?' " he said. "Students and especially their parents become very outcome-focused."


Anya Sostek can be reached at asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


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