Education degrees have plummeted by 50% since 1970, signaling a grim future for America's once-top major: Data

NCES data shows degrees earned in education declined by 50% from the 1970-1971 academic year to the 2020-2021 academic year

Who will teach America's kids? As teacher shortages riddle the education system, some states have been forced to answer the question by slashing or altering requirements to help get aspiring educators into the classroom faster than before, a move that's concerning to some.

At the backdrop of the crisis, data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) shows a possible culprit, or at least one of several that could be fueling the grim outlook as degrees conferred in education – once the number one major in America – have slipped by nearly 50% between the 1970-1971 academic year to the 2020-2021 academic year despite the overall number of college students increasing by nearly 150% in the same timeframe.

At the time, it was the most popular major, coming in at 176,307 degrees conferred with social sciences/history and business degrees coming in second and third with 155,324 and 115,396 degrees conferred, respectively. 

placeholder"These trends aren't surprising. We pour more and more money into the system, and it doesn't make its way to the teachers in the classroom. Per student, education spending increased by 152% between 1970 and 2019 after adjusting for inflation. Teacher salaries only increased by 8% in real terms over that same period. School choice would be an obvious win for students and families by empowering them with more options. But it would be a win for teachers, too," Corey DeAngelis, a senior fellow at School Choice Now told Fox News Digital.


Empty elementary school classroom

Empty elementary classroom. Schools continue to face teacher shortages nationwide, signaling states to take action to help streamline the process to get into the classroom. (iStock)

"Competition would give government school employers an incentive to spend money wisely – on the teachers doing a great job for students – as opposed to administrative bloat, union bosses, and political activity. Competition in the labor market would also make government school employers think twice about making teachers' lives miserable if they want to retain talent. All five studies I've seen on the topic find that school choice competition leads to higher teacher salaries in public schools," he added. 

Experts speculate why the degree – and profession – once in high demand have fallen out of favor.

"In the past, we had many more women who were more inclined to pursue this 'caring' education career," Nicole Smith, research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, recently told CBS MoneyWatch.

The line of work once dominated by women likely took a hit as more opportunities have emerged for women in recent decades, including pushes to consider STEM and business careers as viable options. The baby boomer tradition of women largely fulfilling caretaker roles – even in the workforce – has been challenged in the generations since, possibly signaling a grim future for one of the formerly-most favored careers.

"They were instructed in some ways to follow this path, but a lot of that has changed," Smith continued.

A photo of school lockers

Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics indicated that the number of college students seeking degrees in education plummeted by 50% since 1970 despite the number of overall students increasing by nearly 150%. (iStock)

Chris Torres, associate professor at the at University of Michigan's Marsal Family School of Education, agreed that increased opportunities for women have wounded the profession, telling CBS, "Now that other types of jobs have opened up to women over the last few decades, you're seeing fewer highly educated women enter the profession."

Low pay compared to that of other college graduates, upticks in violence against teachers and destabilization brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are likely other driving factors behind the problem.

The Associated Press, for instance, reported that several states have pushed for or have already provided teachers with raises as shortage concerns linger.

Former private school principal Mandy Davis told "Fox & Friends Weekend" earlier this month she is concerned about teacher shortages increasing the burden on those left to care for the kids, partially because of increased class sizes that further destabilize the classroom.

"I talk a lot about the current teacher shortages because it affects so much. It's causing larger class sizes. With the rise of discipline and behavioral issues in the classroom and the shortage of teachers, that's not the type of balance we want to see," she said.


Teachers protesting low wages

Women holding protest signs at the School Board Administration Building in Miami.  (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Not only are schools having a hard time getting teachers into the classroom, but they also struggle to keep them there, according to recent data reported by The Wall Street Journal, indicating 300,000 teachers fled the profession between February 2020 and May 2022, with others sharing that they would like to do the same. 

"What's concerning as a parent is wondering who is going to come into those roles. We're already seeing dozens of states moving towards changing certifications and license required to try to grow this pool of teachers," Davis added during the segment.

"I'm not sure that's the best environment we want our children in."

New York elementary school teacher Brook Ooten told "Fox & Friends" anchor Ainsley Earhardt in May that the shortage exacerbates existing problems for teachers who are still in the classroom, echoing Davis' concerns.

"We have teachers leaving the profession in droves and I think that puts a lot of stress on the teachers that are in the classroom teaching. They're not as well staffed, classes are overcrowded, and that's a big stressor on teachers today," she said in part. 

A press release from last year detailed that 44% of schools nationwide reported full or part-time teacher vacancies, with special education suffering the most.

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