Eighteen months after the University of Colorado created a department to prepare undergraduates for a broad range of careers in health care: medicine, physical therapy, physician's assistant and more, that department has 1,200 students, making it the second-most-popular on campus.
A similar program at State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island has grown to 370 graduating students last year from 35 four years ago. And at Marquette University, which in 1997 became among the first to offer a basic science degree in human health, the course of study has become more popular than any other.
"It's the fastest-growing major that this campus has ever seen," said William E. Cullinan, associate chairman of the department of biomedical sciences at Marquette, in Milwaukee. "It just exploded beyond anyone's imagination."
Flagship state universities and private institutions other than the elite have long drawn large numbers of working- and middle-class students with a pragmatic bent. But university officials say the current generation is particularly attuned to selecting majors with strong career possibilities.
Add to that the plentiful supply of jobs in the growing health care industry, and the result is that health science programs have been taking off not only at Colorado, Stony Brook and Marquette but also at more than half a dozen other universities across the country, even as disciplines like philosophy, religious studies, humanities and Spanish stagnate or decline on the same campuses.
Whether called biomedical sciences, as at Marquette, or integrative physiology, at Colorado, the majors are devised to give undergraduates a fundamental education in science and health that can lead to a vast array of careers, as optometrists, pharmacists, physical and occupational therapists, radiological technicians and many others, even as doctors.
"At a state university you have kids who are often economically challenged, and this is the stepping stone to a professional life," said Debbie Zelizer, the director of Stony Brook's health science program.
About 70 percent of that program's students are members of racial or ethnic minorities, Zelizer said, and many are the first generation of their families to go to college.
Beyond job possibilities, students are enthusiastic about these majors because of the appeal of helping people and the excitement of scientific advances in diagnosing and treating disease, experts say.
"My best guess is that the interest we are seeing now is because of the ability of science to address questions we have never been able to face before," said Dr. Paul G. Ramsey, dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Washington. "There is an attraction to help people in a way we've never been able to before."
Some universities developed a health science program after reconsideration of what kind of undergraduate training they should offer students interested in clinical fields like physical therapy, occupational therapy and physician's assistant. These once required only a bachelor's degree but now generally call for graduate degrees as well.
Many students find appeal in the new programs because they can lead to various specialties.
Leighton Williams, a 21-year-old senior at Stony Brook, said he had not heard of health science before arriving there. But he gravitated to the major, Williams said, because of the array of career opportunities it offered.
"It gave me the opportunity to have more than one option as a health care professional," he said.
He said he is still unsure which specialty he will select, although he may become an anesthesiology technician. He hopes to attend medical school someday, but first he wants to work after graduation.
"Having a skill, that's what attracted me the most to the major," he said. "For me to be able to work and help out at home, that was very important."
Whatever the university, the programs generally require basic courses in biology, chemistry and math. But unlike students with majors in conventional biology, for example, those in health science do not take many advanced courses in botany or invertebrate biology, concentrating instead on human biology.
So new are the programs as a whole that the Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions does not yet collect data on the number of students they have attracted. But evidence of their growth is hardly scarce.
At Ohio State University, the School of Allied Medical Professions introduced a health science major four years ago. It drew 34 students the first year and now has 250.
At Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., where only 10 students majored in health science five years ago, the number is now about 100, said Edward R. O'Connor, dean of the university's School of Health Sciences.
To be sure, not every university is ready to adopt the model. Emanuel D. Pollack, senior associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the university had not introduced a health science major, out of concern that it would be too broad and unfocused.