Illinois State University is always looking ahead to prepare students for the needs of the future, especially with technological changes seemingly creating new industries overnight. When should the University create new programs or adapt existing ones? What subjects do prospective college students want to study and why? The answers to those questions arise from the experiences of Redbird students and the needs of their prospective employers.

Jeff Mavros, director of Admissions, says current students are increasingly concerned with protecting the environment, physical and mental wellness, and ensuring they have skills that will stand the test of time. Some parents also encourage their children to major in subjects with career paths that are viewed as more secure and practical.

“If you look at trends, it isn’t just that technology has changed things dramatically over the last 20 years, but also the economy factors into it,” Mavros said. “Right now, there is a lot of uncertainty for a lot of reasons, and people gravitate towards something they think will be marketable, make them employable, and give them a good return on investment.”

More than anything, employers are looking for students who have sharp critical-thinking and communication skills that will make them adaptable in a rapidly changing world, says Dr. Diane Zosky, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Because some of the jobs of the future haven’t been created yet, we are hearing from employers that they need people who have critical, foundational skills that come from a liberal arts education,” she said. “We need students who can think critically, communicate effectively, work in teams, and understand diverse, complex societal issues.”

Those interests are seen in the enrollment data. New Redbirds want to do their part to fight climate change, which has led to the creation of new majors like environmental systems science and sustainability and increased enrollment in existing programs like sustainable and renewable energy.

“The environment is very top of mind for this generation and studying renewable and sustainable energy is kind of a no-brainer for them,” Mavros said.

Many students nowadays focus on their own physical and mental health and pursue degrees where they can help other people do the same. More than 1,000 students are enrolled in majors in the School of Kinesiology and Recreation (KNR) and approximately 850 students are studying psychology, placing them among the top 10 programs with the highest enrollment. Much of the interest in psychology emanates from students who want to turn their mental health advocacy into a career.

“When we saw that trend, even pre-COVID, I think it is a social demographic shift in increased altruism in young people and them wanting to go in that direction for their career,” Zosky said.

Being online safely and securely is a necessary part of living and working in the modern world, and talented information technology professionals are in high demand. As a result, the School of Information Technology is currently enrolling over 900 students, many of whom are studying in the new cybersecurity program.

“It’s lived experience for these students,” Mavros said. “They have grown up around technology and they know some of the threats inherent in living a digital life.”

Dr. Shaoen Wu enjoys mentoring students as part of his work as the State Farm Endowed Chair of Cybersecurity. Evan Hazzard, a junior computer science major, is mentored by Wu.
Dr. Shaoen Wu enjoys mentoring students as part of his work as the State Farm Endowed Chair of Cybersecurity. Evan Hazzard, a junior computer science major, is mentored by Wu.

Students often study topics related to the media that they consume. For example, more college students studied paleontology after the release of the hit film Jurassic Park and forensics became popular due to television shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. This same phenomenon can be seen in the choices made by some Redbirds, especially those who grew up around video games and who now want to create digital masterpieces of their own. That is why Illinois State recently launched a game design sequence in the Creative Technologies Program and why Redbird Esports puts a strong focus on developing the skills of students who are wanting to join the game industry in some capacity.

“We’ve seen that gaming is not this niche group of students, but it’s something that is more ubiquitous,” Mavros said. “You look at something like game design in the Creative Technologies Program and you can see why this generation would be attracted to that.”

One field that is increasing in popularity due to its ability to be applied in a plethora of ways and its practicality is engineering, with engineering technology rapidly growing over the past five years. Dr. Jana Albrecht, associate vice president for Enrollment Management, said expanding this program and others like it is essential for Illinois State to stay competitive and draw the most talented students.

“There are a lot of careers that we wouldn’t have thought about only a few years ago,” said Albrecht. “We’ll have to make shifts to programs and move in different directions to keep up with industry.”

With more than 160 fields of study to choose from, it can be hard for some students to find their path right away. About one-third of first-year Illinois State students choose a major immediately and stay on that path their entire way through college, another third enter the University undeclared, and the final third switch their major at some point during their academic journey.

“It is very hard to expect a 17-year-old to know exactly what they want to do,” Mavros said. “Students can have anxiety or be somewhat embarrassed when they have peers that have been on one track forever and are singularly focused. But the University is built for choice, and I think it is a healthy thing for them to ultimately end up where they need to be, whether it’s the first thing they choose or they bounce around a little bit.”