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Articles / Applying to College / Making Major "Education" Decisions

Feb. 15, 2018

Making Major "Education" Decisions

As I've mentioned before numerous times, I had no idea what I wanted to pursue for a life's work when I headed out to college. I'm sure that I wasn't alone.

My roommate who was in Business Administration, the same as I was, confided in me that he really wanted to be a farmer. Ha! That's not shocking. I wanted to be either a professional tennis player or a concert pianist. How absurd is that?

Well, I don't have the hard statistics in front of me, but I'm willing to bet that the majority of incoming college first-year students do not have a clear idea of what path they wish to follow for their careers. Frankly, I think this is an advantage, since college is supposed to be about expanding one's horizons and birthing new thoughts.

My old roommate eventually became a consultant of sorts, which is sort of businesslike, I suppose. I have, as you know from my autobiographical musings across my past 950 or so Admit This! posts, traveled many roads, corporate and otherwise, all of which in some way have brought me to where I am today -- advising and writing about college-related matters.

Part of my daily rituals at the computer keyboard includes searching for articles of note pertaining to college matters. Speaking of college majors and their relationship to careers, particularly teaching, I was intrigued by one that came to me by direct email. The topic addressed how the selection of college majors has changed over time, especially in the area of education.

As with most trends (I consider choosing a college major as being subject to trending), major selection morphs and evolves with the times. All I have to do is ask myself how things have changed since I chose my final college major: music history and literature. Wow. Some changes!

Anyway, I thought I would share some highlights from this article with you so that you could see the effect of trending on the focus, motivation, and college-major/career choices of those entering higher education. I'll start with the introduction that sets the scene:

It's tough to be a teacher.

Day in and day out, you have to walk into a room full of people who may or may not even want to hear you talk and do your best to not just make them hear you, but to make them actually, you know, learn something.

It takes a special kind of person to be a teacher — a genuine mastery of whatever craft you're teaching, combined with a unique blend of insight and patience required to explain what you understand instinctively to someone who has no idea what you're talking about. But as rare as those traits can be, historically speaking, people have lined up to enter the ranks of educators.

So when we here at Zippia were looking independently at the distribution of majors across different age groups, we were surprised at first with the results. The rate of people entering the field of education starts off at a decent clip, but drops dramatically as the data moves into the present day.

We [at Zippia.com] were stumped. So we took a closer look at the data, and did some thinking. Here's what we found.

What follows is a series of interesting multicolored charts [check the article for a clear, detailed look at these] that support the narrative explanations that follow the respective section headlines.

What We Learned From the Data: Young People Are Pretty Much Over Teaching

First, let's look at the map showing the distribution of all majors over time, which we made using 2015 PUMS data from the U.S. Census Bureau ...

... So, what's important here?

The first thing that stood out to me was just how much hadn't changed. Between 1975 and 2015, there are a surprising number of majors that have either stayed the same or else later dropped back down to their original distribution.

Health and Nursing, Social Sciences, and Engineering have all remained within roughly a percentage point of 6-7%, despite the rapid technological changes within all of those fields. And after a big bump in the 1980s, Business and Accounting Majors have since returned to their pre-Gordon Gekko numbers of around 16-17%.

Meanwhile, a lot of what's actually changed is pretty expected. Communications Majors have doubled — which makes sense, given the advent of social media — while Science Majors have increased by about half.

Computer Science, meanwhile, has gone from essentially not existing to making up 3.2% of all majors, which is down slightly from the 2005 dotcom boom highs of 4.8%.

But the biggest change that's occurred has been perhaps the quietest: Education Majors have shrunk from 21.6% of all majors down to a measly 7.6% [my emphasis]. ...

... Fine Arts and Communications have both doubled, but each only holds around 4-5% of the distribution. Computer Science is a thing at all now. And, of course, male Education Majors have shrunk from 11.1% to 3.4%.

So, since the changes in Major Distribution overall probably aren't coming from men's side of things, you can probably see where this is going.

Women Education Majors have dropped from a whopping 32.4% [my emphasis] of the distribution down to a more even 10.7%, and they're experiencing growth in just about everything else. Business Majors are up from 10.5% in the 70s to 14.6% now. Science is up from 5.2% to 12.2%, Psychology from 5.4% to 8.6%, Communications from 5.1% to 6.2%. The drop in Education Majors hasn't led to a rush to any particular new major over another, but lots of small increases across the map. Women aren't leaving Education majors for any other major, but they are leaving it for basically every other one.

What's That Bob Dylan Song About Times Being a Lot Different Than They Were Before?

So we can see three major things happening here.

- Education is dropping off dramatically in college major distribution across genders.

- The major distribution for men is barely changing at all, or changing in smaller, less significant ways.

- The major distribution for women is changing dramatically, with gains being made in nearly every major. ...

What Do We Mean When We Say Teaching is Feminized?

When we refer to teaching as a “traditionally feminine" position, that doesn't mean that there's anything in the term “teaching" itself that makes it seem feminine. When a position is called traditionally masculine or feminine, it simply means that position was historically thought to be done entirely by either men or women. If this was a strongly enough held belief, it had the potential to affect the entire culture's attitude toward a particular field.

The reasons why any field might come to be seen as feminine or masculine are varied, but with teaching, we have a pretty solid idea of how it happened.

As this PBS article describes in detail, it all started with public school. ...

... So all things being (somewhat but not quite) equal, it makes sense that women would be dropping off from the education field like flies.

In Conclusion: It's the Future's Problem

... The only clear solution here is to somehow find a way to make the teaching profession more valued and attractive to young people across genders, assuming that we want to continue to have teachers in the future. But this would take not only a series of shifts in the way that teachers are taught and compensated, but also a significant shift in the way society at large views teachers.

As it stands, we're currently looking at a sort of Education Apocalypse, and years from now when we're all out hunting elk and huddling for warmth in the jungle ruins of Old New York, we'll be kicking ourselves for not valuing teachers a little bit more.

But hey, that's all pretty far off, right? It's like climate change — it probably won't affect us during our lifetimes.


The article highlights that I've posted above illustrate how trends -- particularly the search for immediate and substantial monetary gratification -- can affect various demographics. We live in a world that has become dramatically "practical." The practical effect of money on lifestyle is obvious, but in some cases is misjudged and even ill-considered when it comes to planning for the future.

Ideals are giving way to cause and effect. The cause may be a high-paying job; the effect may be a more comfortable lifestyle. The question then becomes "What price cause and effect?" As the article notes, perhaps someday we'll regret not valuing the teaching profession more highly. Something to ponder.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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