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Education was once the No. 1 major for college students. Now it's an afterthought.

Five decades ago, the U.S. was training an army of college students to become teachers, with 1 in every 5 bachelor's degrees earned in the field of education. That guaranteed a steady pipeline of educators entering the profession, a vital resource for schools around the country, and for the economy as a whole.

Today, education is an afterthought for many college students, who are more likely to study business, engineering, and even the visual and performing arts, according to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics. Even as the population of college students has increased by 150% since 1970, the number of bachelor's degrees in education has plummeted by almost 50% — a steeper drop than that for English, literature and foreign language majors.

Meanwhile, schools in all 50 states report teacher shortages in at least one subject area last year, according to the Brookings Institution.

The shift away from studying education in college represents a massive change in the career goals and aspirations for Gen-Z students compared with older generations, hinting at the underlying economic and societal changes that have transformed the U.S. since the 1970s. Women, who have always composed the bulk of education majors, have more options in the workplace compared with five decades ago, while teachers' relatively low pay and declining societal respect are also to blame, experts told CBS MoneyWatch.

"In the past, we had many more women who were more inclined to pursue this 'caring' education career," said Nicole Smith, research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "They were instructed in some ways to follow this path, but a lot of that has changed."

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the baby boomer generation was coming of age, women enrolled in college and entered the workforce in greater numbers than did earlier generations, yet they were largely concentrated in fields that were viewed as feminine or caretaking roles, such as nursing, teaching and social work.

At the time, teaching was viewed as a good career option for women with children because they could have summers off and school holidays, noted Chris Torres, associate professor at the at University of Michigan's Marsal Family School of Education.

"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," he added. 

Teacher pay gap

But the reasons for declining interest in education as a college major extend beyond the greater career options for women, experts note. A big issue is the relatively low pay earned by teachers compared with other college-educated professionals.

"I taught kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade, and it was by far the hardest job I've ever had," Torres said. "People talk about having a lot of teachers being social workers, and all these other jobs that teachers have to take on within their work."

Torres added, "So whether you're paid competitively relative to jobs that are equally complex and difficult matters a lot to whether you want to get into a profession."

The math on teacher pay may not add up for college students. Teachers are generally paid less than their college-educated peers, a trend that has worsened over the last several decades, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Public school teachers now earn about 24% less than other college-educated professionals, the biggest gap since 1979, the a left-leaning think tank noted. 

At the same time, getting a college degree today is far more expensive than it was in 1970, which is also driving students away from studying education given the modest pay for teachers.

"People are making decisions on college that have an economic slant to it, in particular in respect to student loans," Georgetown's Smith noted. "The conversation now has to be more about the returns to investment and, 'How are we going to pay for it?' and 'Is it worth it in the long run?'"

"Failure as a society to value education"

Recent societal trends are also sapping college students' desire to study education, including the pandemic and what many perceive as a decline in respect for the teachers, noted Qudsia Saeed, a 4th-year education major at American University in Washington, D.C. A series of school shootings in recent years have also added to the demoralization felt by education students, she added.

"The general consensus is that people are stuck in the major and they just want to graduate at this point," Saeed said. "A lot of that sentiment is attributed to COVID and the uncertainty with the education system. People feel demotivated, and I think this is because of our failure as a society to value education."

Saeed said that while her parents are educators, "They're not very supportive" of her decision to enter the field. "I think they're unsupportive because they've seen the struggles of working in education themselves and they're burnt out from it," she added.

Only about 18% of Americans would encourage a young person to become a K-12 teacher, according to a 2022 poll from NORC at the University of Chicago. The chief reason was low pay, followed by a lack of resources to meet student needs and a what is often an excessive workload. 

COVID's education crisis: A lost generation? 07:20

"I don't think we've done enough to professionalize teaching and to raise the prestige of teaching, and to treat it like a true profession and be competitive around pay," Torres said.

For now, Saeed said she's sticking with education partly because she believes the profession needs to be more diverse, although over the long-term she is considering switching to education policy or law.

"Students need representation, and I think that is so critical that it makes me stay in the field," she said. "It makes me happy when students ask me questions about Ramadan or my hijab, or students tell me their family is Muslim or show me their henna."

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