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From Home Economics to Economics (and Business, Medicine, and Law):
A Shift in Women’s Higher Education

Stacey Jones
Stanford University
June 2001

A systemic and unexpected transformation occurred in women's higher education between 1965 and 1980, with great economic consequences. Women college students moved rapidly from the margins into the mainstream of higher education, dramatically increasing their representation in fields and institutions that were previously predominantly or entirely male dominated. My research seeks to identify both the cause of this transformation and its labor market effects.

Concretely, I look at what changed such that my mother's choice of college major in 1960, home economics, was typical of her era and my choice of a graduate degree in economics in 1989 was (somewhat) typical of my own? How did women college students move from home economics to economics, teaching to law, and nursing to medicine within a generation?

The shift of women's college majors out of traditionally female fields was only one of many changes that took place in colleges between 1965 and 1980. During this period, nearly all men's colleges and universities became coeducational and professional schools saw huge increases in the number of women students. For example, from 1960 to 1985 the number of women graduating from law school grew thirteen-fold. The attitudes and decisions of women students came to reflect a much greater emphasis on career preparation. By 1980, these changes had added up to a remarkable expansion of women's participation in higher education.

My research investigates three aspects of the transformation of women's higher education. The first chapter of the dissertation presents historical and statistical evidence that an unanticipated, systemic transformation of women's higher education took place between 1965 and 1980. It looks at the historical development of women's higher education in the United States to show that the changes which occurred during the 1960s and 1970s constituted a sharp break from the past. It then offers an explanation of these changes, arguing that forces both inside and outside the university came together in the late 1960s to produce a wave of change unexpected by even close observers of higher education.

Within the university, the "baby bust" that followed on the heels of the “baby boom” led to an increased willingness on the part of universities to accept female undergraduates. In order to maintain the enrollments, operating budgets and student body quality they enjoyed during the higher education boom of the 1950s and 1960s, universities turned to women students. Outside the university, the feminist movement changed societal norms regarding women and forced open doors to women in the workplace. In the late 1960s these forces came together in a potent way. Finding wider opportunities within both the university and the workplace as well as ideological support from the growing women's movement, women college students moved en masse toward preparing themselves for careers. The orientation of women's higher education shifted with remarkable speed toward a much greater emphasis on career preparation.

The second chapter of the dissertation offers a theory explaining why, in the case of women's higher education, we might expect to see rapid change rather than continuous gradual adaptation to economic and social trends. The chapter draws upon recently developed models of social change that predict long periods of stability occasionally interrupted by bursts of rapid change, rather than incremental adaptation to social and economic conditions. In these models, the choices of individuals depend in part on the choices of others. Few individual women wish to change her behavior alone, but when a sufficient number of women become dissatisfied with the status quo, a tipping point is reached, at which time many individuals change their behavior. In the case of college women, behavior is interdependent in at least two ways: College students look to one another's choices for guidance in their own decisions and women who conform to widely-held behavioral norms face an easier path than those who challenge them. Given these interdependencies, the potential exists for rapid transformations such as that occurring in women's higher education between 1965 and 1980.

After addressing the sources of the transformation of women's higher education, the dissertation turns to the transformation’s labor market consequences. In particular, did the movement of college women into specialized professional fields result in earnings gains when they entered the labor force? The third chapter of the dissertation addresses this question by analyzing the earnings of two cohorts of college graduates. The older cohort graduated between 1965 and 1973, as the transformation of higher education was beginning; the younger cohort graduated between 1979 and 1986, when the transformation was nearly complete. The younger group of women earned 15 percent more per hour in real terms than did the older group. Compared to male college graduates of the same age, the older women earned on average 71 percent of the male wage, while the younger group of women earned 84 percent. My analysis of these women’s earnings and labor market experiences reveals that it was the movement of college women out of traditionally female fields, aided by a complementary increase in their labor force attachment, that resulted in these substantial earnings gains.

In sum, my research provides evidence that, by 1980, complementary changes in the education and employment decisions of college women had taken place. An essential dimension of change was the transformation of women's opportunities and choices within the university. College women of the late 1960s and beyond invested in schooling and early-career experience based on their expectation of spending a significant part of their lifetimes in the labor market. As a result, a large number of women gained entrance into sectors of the labor market which were previously either exclusively or predominantly male dominated. The transformation of women's higher education was a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for these economic and social changes; changes that economist Barbara Bergman has labeled the "economic emergence of women."