30 college majors that didn’t exist 50 years ago
In 1970, a full 21% of college students chose education as a major, according to NPR (based on data from the Digest Of Educational Statistics). By 2011, that number had plummeted to just 6%. Many of today’s teachers find their way into the classroom through alternative paths outside the traditional route of an education degree. Today’s biggest major is business, always a popular course of study, with 1 in 5 modern students graduating with business-related degrees, including majors like marketing, real estate, operations, and accounting. One of the biggest businesses in modern America, however, is health care, which now accounts for at least 1 in 10 college degrees.
Other majors have remained steady over the decades, with subjects like psychology, architecture, biology, and economics attracting roughly the same percentage of students today as they did at the end of the 1960s. Some students, however, are pursuing degrees and choosing majors that weren’t even a concept 50 years ago in 1969, which happened to be one of the most consequential years in American history. The Beatles made their last public performance that year; the Manson family murders terrified a nation; the first remotely connected computers formed ARPANET, the precursor to the modern internet; nearly half a million young people flocked to Woodstock; and the first human beings in the history of the world set foot on the moon.
Since then, the United States and its system of higher education have changed dramatically, giving modern students opportunities for entirely new educational pursuits that hadn’t even been conceived in 1969. Using a variety of sources, Stacker compiled a list of 30 college majors that didn’t exist 50 years ago. Some of them deal with new technology, others reflect changes in social norms regarding dynamics like race, gender, and sexuality. Other new majors reflect shifts in science, medicine, engineering, and agriculture. Here’s a look at 30 college majors that students 50 years ago never could have pursued.
You may also like: Most popular college majors in America
In 1962, a visionary mathematician named John W. Tukey predicted that electronic computing would one day turn data analysis into an empirical science. He was right—and way ahead of his time. Over the last two decades, data has become a personal currency that people use to pay for “free” services like Facebook and mobile apps, and data science is now a popular career and college major.
Colleges certainly offered journalism majors in the 1960s—as evidenced by the arrival in the ’70s of the first rock star celebrity journalists like Hunter S. Thompson, Gloria Steinem, and the Washington Post’s famous Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein duo—but there was no such thing as an online journalism major or even online journalism. Eleven years later in 1980, however, the Columbus Dispatch became the first “online” newspaper when it beamed its scoops to the dial-up CompuServe service, and online journalism was born, although it wouldn’t go mainstream for another 15 years.
Video game design
Two things happened in 1972 that launched what would become a global video game culture: The Magnavox Odyssey console and the game Pong both made their debuts that year. There was no such thing as a video game design major back then, but that would soon change. Today, talented and educated game designers are hot commodities in the multibillion-dollar gaming industry.
The word “nanotechnology” didn’t even exist until 1974, when Japanese scientist Norio Taniguchi coined the term in a paper on production technology. Today, emerging scientists flock to the major to study devices and structures that are so tiny, they’re measured in nanometers. For reference, a human hair is about 100,000 nanometers wide.
Today’s LGBTQ+ studies majors focus on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer issues, and how they’ve impacted and influenced culture, history, politics, art, and society. In 1969, however, you would have likely had to study psychological deviancy if you were curious about the LGBTQ+ community—the American Psychological Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder until 1973 and a “disturbance” until 1987.
Cybersecurity is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. The budding cybersleuths who study it learn about subject matter like cryptography, network engineering, and computer forensics. In 1969, however, there was no concept of a computer network being vulnerable to attack—the first computer virus, called “Creeper,” was discovered on March 16, 1971.
The field of industrial biotechnology emerged and rapidly grew in the mid-1970s, so the learners of 50 years ago would have missed it as a college major, but just barely. Usually offered as a bachelor of science degree at the undergraduate level, biotech offers students the opportunity to parlay their degrees into careers in everything from medicine and science to agriculture and brewing.
As the country seems to edge closer to full marijuana legalization, colleges and universities are offering majors relating to cannabis, even though it’s still banned at the federal level. Popular concentrations include cannabis cultivation, botany, law, chemistry, and marketing. In 1969, however, pot was heavily regulated under the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, and would soon become the linchpin in the War on Drugs.
In 2009, a Canadian woman became the first graduate of a Liverpool Hope University master of arts program called The Beatles, Popular Music and Society. The newly minted M.A. studied not only the iconic band’s music, but its impact on culture, history, politics, race, and society in general. In 1969, the Beatles were still an active band—the Fab Four recorded “Abbey Road” that very year.
Social media management
Social media can technically be traced back to 1969 and the development of CompuServe, an early processing and time-sharing service—but you certainly couldn’t major in social media 50 years ago. That all changed in 2012 when Newberry College in Newberry, S.C., developed one of the first social media undergraduate majors. Today, social media majors study everything from complex business marketing and advertising to political science and polling.
The early work of Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, and later Alfred Kinsey launched a wave of research and study in the area of human sexuality in the 1940s–60s—but it wasn’t offered as a major. Topics like birth control, homosexuality, sex, and sexual dysfunction remained taboo in mainstream academia. In fact, the University of Kansas launched the first human sexuality major in the entire state in 2014.
Bruce Lee’s career spanned the late 1960s and early 1970s, fanning the martial arts fever that swept the country during that time. In 1969, you could find a martial arts school to study karate or kung fu, but not a college that offered it as a major. Today, schools like the University of Bridgeport offer martial arts as a B.A.
In 1970, Cornell University became the first major American higher-learning institution to offer a course dealing with specifically with women and femininity. Called “The Evolution of the Female Personality,” the course led to the formation of an entire department focused on what was then called “female studies.” A half-century later, women’s studies majors dedicate their academic careers to examining how the lives and experiences of women impact and are impacted by history, economics, the arts, society, culture, politics, sexuality, and family dynamics.
Groundbreaking sociologist, activist, and educator Nathan Hare pioneered the first black studies program in history in 1968 at San Francisco State University. It became a department in 1969, and within a few years, hundreds of such programs existed and it was soon offered as a major. Today, black studies majors study the heritage and history of the black experience and how it pertains to both contemporary issues and the future of American society.
The Dust Bowl put irresponsible farming practices in the spotlight as millions of acres of once-fertile farmland literally turned to dust. By the 1960s, small segments of society were becoming aware of the dangers of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, but sustainable and organic agriculture weren’t offered as majors. Today’s health-conscious and well-informed populace, however, is deeply concerned with the origins of food, and colleges across the country and the world now offer degree programs to help the next generation of growers address those concerns.
The first known use of the word “robot” came in 1920 in a play by Karel Čapek, and by the 1950s, robots were the basis of countless science fiction books and movies. But even through the ’60s, robots were still experimental novelties. Today, however, highly sophisticated robotic devices aid in surgeries, perform blazing-fast work on assembly lines and do the heavy lifting, both figuratively and literally, in major distribution centers like those run by Amazon. Today’s robotics engineering majors can apply their skills to careers in a huge number of industries that are starting to depend on emerging technology.
Decades of hard-fought advocacy came to fruition in 1975 with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), which guaranteed children with disabilities the right to free public education. It brought special education into the world of mainstream teaching, which generations of special educators have taken on as a calling in the ensuing years. Today special education is a popular major and the vast majority of colleges and universities that offer education programs include it as a concentration.
The concept of food as medicine dates back to the ancient Greeks and contemporary dietetics studies emerged as a philosophy in the early 19th century. It didn’t become a full-fledged discipline, or a college major, however, until the last few decades. A degree in dietetics or nutrition could lead to a career as a nutritionist or counselor working with individuals, groups, teams, schools, medical facilities, or entire communities.
The hit show “Mad Men” chronicled the lives of freewheeling advertising executives in the 1960s; marketing and selling products had been big business for generations by the time 1969’s graduating class donned their caps and gowns. One of today’s biggest majors, however, wasn’t available to the Don Drapers of the world back then. Digital marketing deals with branding across social channels via online content, videos, blogs, websites, apps, and digital customer profiles.
Scientists discovered double-helix DNA in the 1950s, but the discipline of genetic counseling is relatively new. Students who choose this major will specialize in running genetic profiles on people and counseling them about any genetically influenced diseases or other health-related predispositions they might have.
Experimentation with drones began long before 1969, but the modern era of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) began in earnest in the early 1980s when Israel used them successfully in military operations during its war with Syria. Today, drone technology majors study UAV not just for military applications, but for photography, research and development, supply chain and logistics, disaster relief, and scientific study.
Forensic behavioral sciences
In 2019, the Fresno State News reported that it was launching what was believed to be the only forensic behavioral sciences degree program in the country. The hit Netflix show “Mindhunter” chronicles the rise of the FBI’s then-new Behavioral Sciences Unit, whose agents used behavioral profiling to track serial killers. That took place in the mid-1970s through the early ’80s, and while criminal psychology was a field in 1969, there was no such thing as a forensic behavioral science major.
Recycling was practiced out of personal necessity for centuries before modern America implemented it as a policy to deal with the massive amount of unsustainable waste the country was producing. The arrival of the Environmental Protection Agency and the environmental movement in the 1970s lead to large-scale recycling, and today, students can major in degree programs like recycling and resource management.
Search engine optimization
In today’s business landscape, you are what Google says you are. Search engine optimization (SEO) specialists optimize websites to get the best, highest, and most visible results in online search queries—if a business wants to disappear, after all, all it has to do is land on page two of Google’s search results. In 1969, SEO wasn’t even a concept, much less a major.
Internet of Things
In 1969, the concept of household appliances communicating with each other and performing tasks automatically according to the preset instructions of their human masters would have been relegated to the realm of science fiction. Today, it’s a reality called the Internet of Things (IoT), which connects otherwise inanimate objects through Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and other signals. Those who study IoT as a college major will be on the edge of revolutionary new technology that is only now entering the mainstream.
Like IoT, artificial intelligence (AI) would have likely been written off as the stuff of sci-fi 50 years ago, but today, it’s very real. Carnegie Mellon, one of the country’s top engineering schools, created a B.S. program just for AI. Those who choose the major will learn how to work with huge data sets embedded into computers and what the school calls “complex inputs,” like language and vision.
If someone said they were a cloud expert in 1969, it would have likely been assumed that they worked in meteorology. Anyone who’s lived through the prior decade or so, however, knows that cloud computing has revolutionized the way people store and share data. The major is offered in specialties like cloud architect, cloud consultant, and cloud systems administrator.
Today, the connection between quality sleep and wellbeing is well established. In 1969, however, sleep science was an emerging discipline; REM-stage sleep wasn’t discovered until 1953. Today, it's a popular major that graduates can transform into careers in medicine, research, science, and specialty disciplines like addiction recovery and PTSD therapy.
From sports teams and rehab centers to community centers and children’s organizations, physical therapy and exercise science are hot careers in a modern society concerned with personal wellness. In 1969, however, the emerging discipline of exercise science was not yet a college major.
The modern athlete is a fine-tuned machine—and one whose body is incredibly prone to injury, exhaustion, stress, fatigue, and other sports-related physical degradation. The sports medicine major prepares students to diagnose, treat, and counsel patients specifically in the realm of athletics, and although it’s been around for decades, it wasn’t a major in 1969.
You may also like: Most popular college majors in America