This morning's blog entry by FSU physicist Paul Cottle illustrates the growth of undergraduate professional majors at the expense of science… and liberal arts. The reason why there aren't large numbers of physics majors at USF isn't the horde in philosophy but the hordes in business or starting out as pre-meds.
I'm not sure what the "right" balance in majors would be for a society. In general, limited-access programs are based less on the notions of what the right number of graduates would be than the costs of a program. Like many universities, mine limits the numbers of students in nursing, where there's at least some evidence of a professional shortage in Florida, while it has no cap on the number of elementary-education majors, which was not one of the key areas of teacher shortages even before the recession. But it's very expensive to run a nursing program when done properly.
Then there's student demand. I've heard that something like a third of undergraduates at USF enter with pre-med desires. So the university has to run enough of the intro science classes to meet those demands. I don't know of any institution that caps pre-meds, but many let the intro courses serve as filters. Business majors at USF have to pass calculus. And so forth.
So what happens when students don't pass the filters or get into limited-entry programs? That's one of the key questions at large public universities. Do disappointed pre-meds head to psychology, liberal arts, education, or some quasi-STEM major where they can use some of the C+ and B- grades they've accumulated in the first year? And would the latter contribute towards what Cottle is suggesting as a reorientation?
I know: Cottle's thinking about a different group of students, those who fly through anything they enroll in. But in public policy terms, as my colleague Erwin Johanningmeier put it, public universities are often treated as utilities, where quantity is important. And when you look at policy arguments, you often see gross numbers of graduates as the key measure.