The U.S. Department of Education is taking a new look at biology majors at a time when many of them are looking to boost their chances for a career, a new study shows.
The federal agency is looking at the degree and degree-granting programs that offer a bachelor’s and master’s degree, which can be completed in the first year of study, as well as an associate’s degree.
The study comes at a sensitive time for biology majors as enrollment is dropping in the country.
The number of students taking a bachelor of science in biology dropped to 3.3 million from 3.4 million in 2016.
The decline in students is due in part to a combination of factors, including the decline in the number of undergraduate students and the recession, said David Smith, the director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy at the U.N. agency.
“The trend is clear that a significant portion of the population has become disengaged from the world of biology,” Smith said.
Smith is conducting a study on the career prospects of more than 6,000 biology majors and their peers at colleges and universities.
His goal is to identify trends and potential pitfalls that can help them make the most of their degree options.
The study found that more than half of the students surveyed said they were either looking for an associate or bachelor’s degree to get an entry-level job in a field like engineering or biochemistry, but less than 10 percent of them were actively pursuing a bachelor degree.
A majority of the biology majors who were actively looking for work said they had an associate degree.
About 80 percent of the bachelor’s degrees granted to biology majors were awarded to those with a bachelor and associate’s in chemistry or biology, Smith said, noting that the survey showed a trend in these fields for increasing graduation rates.
The data show that in 2019, nearly 75 percent of graduates who completed bachelor’s in science with a chemistry degree received a master’s in biochemistry or a bachelor in biology.
The research shows that a bachelor is often a better career choice for some of these students, Smith added.
“It’s a good thing to have a bachelor, and it’s a better option than not having a bachelor,” he said.
Students who took a bachelor did better on the GRE, the nationally recognized test that assesses math and reading ability.
More than three quarters of biology majors received an “A” or higher on the test.
But students who took the master’s did worse, the study found.
About half of those who took an associate and bachelor’s did not meet the threshold for graduate school admission.
“This is not a shock to anyone who has ever taken an associate in college, or an associate, and had an A in college,” Smith told Fortune.
“The people who have the master in biology were the ones who did the worst.”
Smith said he plans to continue monitoring the numbers and making recommendations to the federal agency.
“We are going to see how this works and see what changes need to be made,” he added.
Smith said the federal government is not looking to restrict the number or the types of programs that allow for bachelor’s or associate degrees.
“There are a lot of programs, and a lot are doing well, and some of them have been doing well for years,” he explained.
“In the future, I don’t think we are going back to the days when we were limited by the number and types of bachelor’s programs,” he continued.