The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Over the past 40 years, fewer English majors but more journalism majors

College is still generally a good investment, when you compare the job prospects of those with and without bachelor’s degrees. But if college students really want to maximize their earnings, they might make some different choices about what they study.

Here’s a comparison of the distribution of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 1970-71 (the earliest year for which data are available) and 2011-12:

You’ll notice some big shifts in undergraduates’ choices of majors over time, and the shifts don’t always reflect where the jobs are.

Among the disciplines that have lost share in total degrees awarded: education (21% of degrees awarded in 1970-71, 5.9% in 2011-12); English (7.6% vs. 3%); social studies and history (18.5% vs. 10%); math and statistics (3% vs. 1%); physical sciences and science technologies (2.5% to 1.5%); and foreign languages, literatures and linguistics (2.5% to 1.2%).

My hunch is that the decline in education degrees, in both raw numbers and as a share of all degrees, reflects both changing career opportunities for women, as well as perhaps changes to teacher licensing requirements. (Readers, do you know?) I don’t know how to explain some of the others. Mathematical science occupations are projected to grow rapidly in the next 10 years, yet the country is graduating fewer math majors today than it did in 1971 — in raw numbers, not just percentage of all degrees. Four decades ago, 25,000 bachelor’s degrees went to people who studied math and statistics; today the number is just 19,000, even though college enrollment overall has grown.

The majors that have gained the most share: business (13.7% in 1970-71 vs. 20% in 2011-12); health professions and related programs (3% vs. 9.1%); and communication, journalism, and related programs (1.2% vs. 4.7%).

Isn’t that kind of crazy? That means almost one in 20 bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2011-12 was in communications/journalism. Why, I have no idea. Probably not because of the hot job prospects.

The share of degrees awarded in computer and information sciences has grown since 1970-71, but remember there were almost no computer majors back then. If you just look at what’s happened so far this millennium, both the share and raw number of BA’s going to computer and information sciences has fallen on net, though it’s crept up slightly in the years since the recession.