Of the 839,730 recipients of bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. in the 1970-1971 academic year, 176,307 got education degrees. Other big fields of study included the social sciences, business and English.
In 2016-2017, nearly 2 million bachelor’s degrees were awarded. Most of the top 10 majors from 1970-1971 were still in the top 10, but the order had changed a lot.
To give a better sense of how and when the distribution has changed over time, here are the trajectories of the four fields of study that made it into double digits in one or both of the above rankings.
(Related: 30 Best Paying College Majors: 2018)
Some of the biggest shifts happened in the 1970s, driven in large part, as University of British Columbia historian Heidi Tworek described a few years ago, by women entering college in large numbers (they received the majority of bachelor’s degrees for the first time in the early 1980s) and then busting out of the narrow range of majors such as education and English to which they had initially been confined.
The business category, which includes such majors as accounting, human resources and marketing, seized the No. 1 spot in the late 1970s and has held it since, although it reached peak popularity during the era of Ronald Reagan and Alex Keaton, which is a nice touch. The most significant development of this century, meanwhile, has been the rise of the health professions.
Of the 238,014 bachelor’s degrees in health professions and related programs awarded in 2016-2017 (about half were in registered nursing), 84% went to women. Women accounted for 57% of bachelor’s degrees overall, 47% of those in business, 50% in social sciences and history, and 81% in education.
Education degrees have been in a long decline, so to some extent what has happened is that women switched from teaching to health care. They had good financial reason to do so: A report called “The Economic Value of College Majors” from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that workers ages 25 to 49 who had majored in health-related subjects made an average of $65,000 a year in 2013 (the same as business majors), while those who majored in “teaching and serving” fields made $46,000.
Employment has also grown much faster in health care than in the rest of the economy, and is projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to continue doing so. Meanwhile, the Economic Policy Institute reports that the teacher wage penalty — how much less teachers are paid relative to workers with comparable education, experience and other characteristics — hit an all-time high of 21.4% in 2018.
Another shift of note has been away from the traditional humanities. English language and literature was the fourth-most popular field of study in 1970-1971, accounting for 7.6% of bachelor’s degrees. By 2016-2017, it had fallen to 15th place, at 2.1%. And while social sciences and history remains in the top three, its share is less than half what it was in 1970-1971.