Data about enrollment in psychology courses come from a number of sources, including the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). NCES is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the United States and other nations.
Undergraduate Education in Psychology
NCES reported that there were 1.8 million bachelor's degrees conferred in 2011-12, an increase of 4 percent from the previous year. Of the bachelor's degrees awarded in 2011-12, almost one-third (30 percent) were concentrated in two fields: business (20 percent), and social sciences and history (10 percent). The three fields awarding the next largest percentages of bachelor's degrees in 2011-12 were health professions and related programs (9 percent), psychology (6 percent) and education (6 percent).
Data for students attending community colleges are less clear. Frequently, students who wish to pursue an undergraduate degree in psychology select an associate’s degree program that allows for efficient transfer to a college or university. This generally precludes a major in psychology at a community college level. Therefore, it is difficult to identify the number of students who attend community colleges for the express purpose of majoring in psychology. But, NCES reports that during a 10-year period (from 2001-02 to 2009-10), "the number of associate’s degrees in psychology more than doubled (177 percent, from 1,700 to 4,700 degrees)."
Jane S. Halonen, PhD, examines the popularity, utility and rigor of the psychology major in her white paper, "Are There Too Many Psychology Majors?" (PDF, 696KB).
High School Psychology
With respect to the number of students who take psychology in high school, there are data reporting the number of students who take the Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) psychology exams. In 2013, just fewer than 239,000 students took the Advanced Placement psychology exam (College Board, 2013). Considering that just fewer than 4,000 students took the AP psychology exam in 1992 (the first year the exam was given), this demonstrates an astonishing growth in the popularity of the subject. In 2013, AP psychology ranked as the sixth largest exam volume out of 34 AP subject exams. There were more than 5,200 teachers who taught AP psychology and nearly 4,500 schools were authorized to include the AP designation for their psychology courses in the 2012-13 academic year (L. Shin, personal communication, Sept. 5, 2013).
Additionally, in the spring of 2013, nearly 17,200 candidates worldwide either took the International Baccalaureate (IB) psychology exam or wrote their IB extended essay in psychology. Approximately 11,300 candidates in the United States either took the IB psychology exam or wrote their IB extended essay in psychology (IB answers, personal communication, Feb. 17, 2014). In the spring of 2013, IB psychology ranked seventh out of approximately 26 IB subject exams in the U.S., in terms of exam volume, and eleventh worldwide. For more details, please see "The IB Diploma Statistical Bulletin" (IB, 2013).
In addition to students enrolled in AP and IB psychology, a general psychology course is also available at many schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2009, the most recent year of available data, nearly 30 percent of graduating students earned credits in a psychology course during their four years in high school (U.S. Department of Education, 2009). If more than 3 million students graduated from high school in 2009 and 30 percent of these graduates took a psychology course, close to 1 million students graduated in 2009 having taken psychology in high school. These numbers were supported by data from the College Board that indicated that 27 percent of all graduating high school students in 2010 who took the SAT took psychology during high school (College Board Research & Development, 2011).
College Board. (2013). AP Program Participation and Performance Data 2013.
College Board Research & Development (2011). College-bound seniors 2010: Recent high school graduates who took psychology during high school, by course type. New York: Author.
International Baccalaureate. (2013). The IB Diploma Statistical Bulletin: May 2013 Examination Session.
U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. (2009). America's high school graduates: Results from the 2009 NAEP High School Transcript Study.
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