APS News | Careers and Education

As Undergrad Physics Enrollment Stumbles, Departments Look Inward

Faculty offer insight on how physics programs can showcase career paths, support students of color, and more.

Published Jun 15, 2023
Student putting up poster at APS March Meeting
An undergraduate student hanging up a poster at the 2022 March Meeting.
Credit: American Physical Society

The COVID-19 pandemic took a bite out of US undergraduate enrollment, which on average declined by 3.8% for men and 5.6% for women from 2020 to 2022.

But enrollment had already been falling. By the time COVID struck, enrollment nationally had already decreased by 13% — 2.6 million students — since its peak in 2011. And with a demographic ‘enrollment cliff’ predicted for 2025, many school administrators are nervously watching forecasts.

From 2000 to 2020, year-over-year increases in the number of physics bachelor’s awarded in the US dipped below 150 students just three times: in 2008, 2009, and 2020. The first two, during the Great Recession, appeared to reflect economic strain across student demographic groups.

The recent downturn is tied more tightly to the largest demographic group in physics today and historically — young white men. As this group has diverted from bachelor’s-level education, physics and fields with similar demographic profiles, like engineering, have felt the pinch.

Now, many physics departments are investing in cultural and curricular reforms that support groups historically underrepresented in physics, seeing these young people as an untapped source of scientific talent and innovation.

To learn more, APS News spoke with department chairs and faculty at institutions around the country. What do these experts think might boost enrollment?

Emphasize career connections

As tuition costs have far outpaced wage growth, many people aren’t sure college is worth it, even though STEM degrees are among the most lucrative. According to Ben Zwickl, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Rochester Institute of Technology, physics faces an especially tricky challenge.

“Although physics is in STEM, we are not as clearly linked to a job as computer science or engineering,” he says.

Colleges must do a better job of clearly connecting physics to diverse and well-paying career paths, Zwickl argues. “Students need to know that the debt they take on during undergrad has a hope of being paid off in a reasonable timeframe, and that it won’t lower their quality of life over a long time period,” he says.

With clearer routes to jobs, some students who might otherwise divert to engineering or computer science might choose physics instead. And learning about the path from a physics degree to employment might be particularly meaningful for first-generation college students, who are more likely to incur student debt than students with college-educated parents.

A careers fair at the 2022 March Meeting.
Credit: American Physical Society

Change the physics curriculum

Some departments are also scrutinizing and reworking the physics curriculum. Several years ago, Florida International University (FIU) — named a Fulbright Hispanic-Serving Institution leader by the US State Department — asked the department to make changes that would help students graduate within four years. Because many FIU physics majors don’t start off in the program — instead switching into it after enjoying the introductory physics required by other programs, like engineering — they must play catch-up, and often take longer to graduate.

“We needed to streamline the undergraduate physics curriculum,” says FIU physics chair Werner Boeglin.

First, the department reduced the number of required two-semester course series. Two semesters of modern physics lectures and labs became one, for example. The department also gave students more leeway on which upper-division courses they could count toward their degree. “Since many of our students had already completed upper-division coursework in engineering, mathematics, or computer science, we decided to accept many of these ‘applied physics’ courses as physics electives,” says Boeglin.

With fewer academic hurdles, FIU’s physics program, whose undergraduate student body is two-thirds Hispanic or Latino, has seen “dramatically increased graduation rates,” says Boeglin.

And with students graduating more quickly, FIU’s undergraduate physics student body has shrunk — but for Boeglin, that’s understandable. “You have the same influx, but now you have a bigger outflux,” he says. Still, recruiting efforts have become increasingly important, even with FIU’s strong reputation.

Other departments are investing in new courses that broaden physics’ appeal. For example, in “the quantum information science area, there are many new courses,” Zwickl says. The courses are so new that faculty lack the right textbooks, and online communities have cropped up to share resources.

But new courses aren’t always needed: Existing classes can teach new tools and applications. “Imagine an upper division theoretical course,” Zwickl says. “You can swap out maybe 25% of the assignments and make them more computational. Then you’re still giving problems in quantum mechanics or electricity and magnetism, but you're allowing students to explore those in more open-ended ways.”

Zwickl also suggests incorporating more writing assignments into theory courses. “Maybe you’ll lose a bit of content coverage, but [the students] actually go quite a bit deeper in some area and see how these theoretical ideas apply to some interesting system,” he says. Plus, the students develop communication skills, one of the top five skills employers today want in STEM grads.

Because of accreditation requirements, engineering and computing programs have extensive industry partnerships. Those partnerships provide critical feedback and “keep the programs fresh,” says Zwickl. As a result, engineering and computing programs “teach broadly relevant content, but also have an emphasis on teamwork and collaboration,” he says. “It’s something every employer says is important, and something that physics departments don’t emphasize to the same degree.”

Build community for students of color

In 1995, HBCUs graduated more than 1 in 2 Black physics majors — but in 2020, that number had fallen to 1 in 4. HBCUs have also seen declining enrollment in chemistry and engineering.

“Part of it is a high school issue — they’re not feeding the pipeline,” says Willie Rockward, physics chair at Morgan State University in Maryland. Because Black children in the US are more likely to attend socioeconomically disadvantaged schools, they’re less likely to have dedicated physics courses, or teachers who know about physics careers and can point high-achieving math students toward physics, he says.

Rockward also points to the changing demographics of HBCU student and faculty bodies, which have become increasingly international and white. These shifts have changed the culture at many HBCUs, Rockward says. Given these trends, schools need to chart a path forward that ensures Black students still receive the support they need to succeed, regardless of who’s teaching their classes, he adds.

“The biggest thing — and to me, it’s low-hanging fruit, anyone can just pick it off the tree — is cohort recruiting,” he says. “The main problem in physics is isolation. At some point, you get tired of being the only one.” Rockward says cohort recruiting builds on the model of community. It has worked for HBCUs for decades, and it can work at predominantly white institutions as well, he says.

“If you can bring in three to five students from the same culture, the same ethnic group, per year or at least every other year, then that cohort helps them establish a community,” he says. “Once you get that established . . . I promise, the problem begins to solve itself.”

Help women identify as “physics people”

In just five years, from 2015 to 2020, the annual number of women graduating with a bachelor’s in physics doubled. Women now earn 1 in 4 physics bachelor’s degrees, and 1 in 5 faculty in physics and astronomy departments are women.

Students at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) at Northwestern University in 2019.
Credit: American Physical Society

Anne Marie Porter, senior survey scientist at the American Institute of Physics, says she doesn’t see any reason for these trends to slow. “We’ve heard from students that having women’s support groups on campuses, meeting other women — whether they are faculty members or older graduate students — helps inspire them to persist in the field,” she says.

But Porter says departments need to “address the factors that are making women feel like they can’t do physics, or they’re not welcome in that space.”

“We want to make physics as encouraging and welcoming as we can. So, if women are not choosing physics, ideally, it’s because there’s something else they want to do, rather than feeling like they can’t succeed in the physics field,” she says.

Initiatives like STEP UP are designed to help young women identify as ‘physics people,’ so that more will pursue college-level physics. Efforts like these are important, Porter says, because they help women better understand what physics is and what they can do with it.

Offer a student-focused program

Rockward’s plan to boost physics enrollment at Morgan State prioritizes the needs of his student body. “We’re putting in place what I call the ‘we care’ model,” he says. A core element of his plan — embracing the needs of Black students — could work at any school struggling to retain underrepresented students, he explains. At Morgan State, the faculty are “going beyond academic advising, to also focus on career advising . . . and connecting them to alumni.”

“Giving the students that full-scale support structure seems to have been very successful,” says Rockward, who also used this approach at Morehouse. He says departments need “champions” on the faculty who make it clear they’re there to help Black students, or any students from underrepresented groups, succeed.

At FIU, many physics majors arrive less prepared than the average student enrolled at a better-funded school, says Boeglin. To help students succeed, “we provide a lot of help,” he says — including by signing off on independent study courses, which gives students a chance to explore their individual interests. The students appreciate the one-to-one attention, and their graduate school applications are more successful, because faculty can write them stronger letters of recommendation, he says.

Boeglin also points out many Hispanic and Latino students at FIU have “very strong” family ties, and many work while attending school — factors that can make it harder for students to travel for conferences or internships. “Because we are a smaller program, we can take this into account,” he says.

More broadly, Zwickl says that departments need to pay close attention to students’ fears of failing out of a challenging major like physics. “I think for a long time, STEM departments were content to fail lots of students because there were always more to replace them,” he says, which “treats students as a commodity, not as people.”

“People don’t make a commitment to go to college if they think ‘I’m not going to finish this,’” he adds. “If our physics department are not doing as well as they could with retention and graduation, then it should be a priority.”

Zwickl suggests that departments looking to make changes consult APS’s Effective Practices for Physics Programs (EP3) guide. The resource includes best practices to help departments improve and respond to challenges, including declines in funding and enrollment.

“Jobs are on the line,” he says. “That’s got to be the strongest incentive to change.”

To future-proof your physics department, visit the APS Effective Practices for Physics Programs (EP3) guide.

Liz Boatman

Liz Boatman is a science writer based in Minnesota.

Join your Society

If you embrace scientific discovery, truth and integrity, partnership, inclusion, and lifelong curiosity, this is your professional home.