March 1, 2024

Economix: College Majors and the Job Market

In my article today on the job market for recent college grads, I mentioned that academic majors seem to have a big effect on whether students are employed — and employed in jobs that use their college degrees — after they graduate.

In 2009, the Labor Department’s American Community Survey began asking people what discipline they majored in, if they graduated from college. Andrew Sum, a labor economist at Northeastern University and leading expert on the youth labor market, has analyzed the resulting answers, and then looked at what types of jobs graduates of each major held. If the type of job is one that typically requires a college degree (based on other Labor Department data), he categorized these people as being in the “college labor market.”

Here’s a look at his results, which show 2009 employment rates for college alumni under age 25. (We won’t have 2010 data until this summer, unfortunately.)

DESCRIPTIONSource: Andrew Sum, Northeastern University, using 2009 American Community Survey data

As you can see, across all disciplines, 77.6 percent of college graduates had jobs. But only 55.6 percent of all college graduates had jobs that required college degrees. (Some of the remaining grads who didn’t have jobs were looking for work, but some weren’t, perhaps because they were enrolled in school.)

The major that produced the most graduates in jobs that required degrees was education and teaching; 71.1 percent of this discipline’s alumni had jobs for which a bachelor’s was a prerequisite. This is probably not surprising, since so many of these grads became teachers.

Engineering had the next-best track record, with 69.4 percent of its graduates placed in college labor market jobs.

The majors with the worst placement records were area studies (44.7 percent in degree-requiring jobs) and humanities (45.4 percent).

Why do we care if these grads get placed in jobs that require degrees?

Part of the reason people go to college is to get better jobs. It’s by no means the only reason, of course; a liberal arts education can enrich a person’s life in ways besides better employment. But better employment is surely one of the crucial goals, and jobs that require college degrees generally pay better than jobs that don’t. This is true for graduates of every major:

DESCRIPTIONSource: Andrew Sum, Northeastern University, using 2009 American Community Survey data

Across all majors, the typical graduate who finds a job requiring a college degree will earn $26,756. The typical graduate who find a job that does require a degree, by contrast, will earn just $15,896. That’s about an $11,000 premium.

The disparity is bigger for certain majors than others.

Health majors appear to have the most to gain by finding a job that requires their degree, since their typical earnings in such a job ($30,819) are nearly two and half times their typical earnings in a job that doesn’t require a degree ($12,843). The premium is lowest for area studies majors.

Interestingly, college majors also seem to have an effect on earnings in jobs that don’t require having gone to college. Note that engineers, for example, still earn more in non-degree-requiring jobs than humanities majors get in degree-requiring jobs.

This may have something to do with the types of people who choose to major in these disciplines, or perhaps where they live. It may also mean that the type of knowledge you acquire in each major can enhance your abilities or productivity in all kinds of work, even that usually done by lower-skilled people.

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