Trends in Bachelor’s Degrees Awarded from 1970 to 2011

Published on May 12, 2014

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

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Thirty years ago, the most common four-year college major was business. The same was true in 2011. But the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded by field has drastically shifted over the last few decades, as NPR’s Planet Money blog visualizes so well in a new interactive graphic.

Engineering degrees made up 8.2% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 1984. By 2011, that percentage dropped to 4.7%. Health degrees have gone from taking up 3% of the bachelor’s degree pie in 1970 to nearly 10%. And education, English, and other degree fields have seen substantial drop-offs as the economy and labor market have gone through big upheavals.

Planet Money’s graphic shows the share of bachelor’s degrees by field from 1970 to 2011, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics. EMSI has this same data — by program, award level, and institution — from 2003 to 2012 (with 2013 expected soon) in our data research tool, Analyst.

The trends even in the last decade are noteworthy, especially when we look beyond just bachelor’s degrees and at all award levels.

For instance, the most popular detailed program in terms of completions is business administration. American colleges and universities pumped out nearly 320,000 completions in this program in 2012, up 46% since 2003. But less than half of these completions (45%) came at the bachelor’s level. More than a third were master’s degrees (that’s a lot of MBAs — nearly 117,000), and 14% were associate’s degrees.

Engineering also looks far different outside the bachelor’s-only realm. Nearly 40% of all engineering completions in 2012 were at the graduate level (30% master’s, 6% doctoral). When we add in postbaccalaureate degreees, the number of engineering completions expands from around 82,000 to 137,000.

The completion numbers also vary by award level for the five universities that awarded the most engineering degrees in 2012. The University of Michigan and the University of Florida have the smallest share of bachelor’s degrees in engineering among the top five (each under 50%). At Florida, 43% of engineering degrees were at the master’s level in 2013, while at Purdue, it was only 26%. Georgia Tech, the nation’s top producer of engineering degrees, had the highest share of doctoral degrees, at nearly 11% of its total.

For educational completion trends in your region, email Josh Wright. And for more on EMSI data, see here. Follow EMSI on Twitter (@DesktopEcon) or check us out on LinkedIn and Facebook.