Measuring the Weight of a College Degree

Report’s surprising numbers tie unemployment rates to professions

By Amelia Pang
Epoch Times Staff
Created: January 12, 2012 Last Updated: January 16, 2012
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A doctor and emergency room nurse care for a patient in the ER of Mission Community Hospital in California. Health care and education graduates rank among the lowest percentage rate of those unemployed, at 5.4 percent. (David McNew/Getty Images)

A doctor and emergency room nurse care for a patient in the ER of Mission Community Hospital in California. Health care and education graduates rank among the lowest percentage rate of those unemployed, at 5.4 percent. (David McNew/Getty Images)

With the job market in a state of doldrums, some may wonder if a college degree is still worth its while. New research from Georgetown University shows that it is, but for some traditionally high success majors such as architecture and civil engineering, the future is not looking too bright.

In the present environment, the risk of unemployment depends on one’s major. The unemployment rate among recent college graduates with majors in architecture comes in at a high 13.9 percent, paralleling the collapse of housing and construction industries. This rate is comparably higher than the unemployment rate of recent health care and education graduates, which comes in at 5.4 percent.

Even experienced architect graduates suffer from a 9.2 percent unemployment rate, according to the report Hard Times, released on Jan. 4.

“We are moving further from our grandfathers’ high school economy and closer to the modernized post-secondary economy,” said Jeff Strohl, director of research at Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, and co-author of the report.

The average unemployment rate for someone with a bachelor’s degrees is 8.9 percent. The rate jumps to 22.9 percent for recent high school graduates, and 31.5 percent for recent high school dropouts.

“There are three well paying jobs for every 10 high school graduates,” said Strohl. “That’s one bad game of musical chairs.”

According to Strohl, a college education is worth more today than in the past.”There is no longer even a minimum option for a middle-class lifestyle, you need some college,” Strohl said.

Business majors are traditionally safe majors, with an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent. But as travel and tourism industries have taken a hit in recent times, graduates specializing in hospitality management face a 9.1 unemployment rate, according to the report.

Same with engineering majors, who have generally done well in both income and employment, but are now coming in at a 7.5 percent unemployment rate. The rate for civil and mechanical engineers nearly matches that for architects.

A Shift in the American Dream

In the latter part of the 1960s, automotive repairmen only needed a high school degree or less. Today, their title has been upgraded to automotive technicians, and requires an associate degree, according to Strohl.

“I used to have a 1950s Chevy that you can fix with duct tape, but when you lift the hood of your car now, it’s probably half computer,” Strohl said.

This is a general example that represents “a lot of the change that has been going on in the workplace and labor market,” he said.

Overall, there’s been a massive increase in the complexity of work processes, and technologies in the workplace and global economy, according to Strohl. A mere high school degree probably won’t cut it for the new working middle-class.

“Many people associate majors with occupations. But one thing we found with the report is that many times, it’s just not the case,” Strohl said.

Despite the stereotype that science and math majors have a better chance at finding jobs, the report found that it varies, depending on how much technical knowledge and courses a student took.

“We can see the difference in unemployment between people who invent computer technology as opposed to people who use computer technology,” said the report.

Employers are looking for people with skills in “writing software and inventing new applications,” rather than information specialists who analyze and manipulate information, according to the report.

Liberal Arts

Liberal arts has been referred to as “the no-jobs major” by some. According to the report, that’s not the case.

“Liberal arts is not that much worse off than the average B.A.,” said Strohl.

According to the report, the unemployment rate of a recent liberal arts graduate lies at 9.4 percent. They fall slightly behind recent social science, and computer and mathematics graduates, which are 8.9 and 8.2 percent respectively. 

“The medium [salary] of experienced workers is 50,000. It’s the same as 4 or 5 other groups,” he said. There is some evidence that a liberal arts degree teaches people to learn in a flexible and open-minded way, “though it is a hard thing to measure,” Strohl said.

“Though differences remain high among majors, graduate education raises earnings across the board,” said the report.

The average earnings for bachelor’s degrees now stands at $48,000, compared with $62,000 for graduate degrees, with the exception of arts and education.

But not all graduate degrees outperform bachelor’s degrees. In fact, bachelor’s degree-holders with work experience in health care have lower unemployment rates than all graduate fields, except the life and physical sciences.

“Someone who is looking at the labor market today may say, ‘My goodness, I don’t want to be an architect,’ and all of a sudden there’s a shortage of architects,” Strohl said. “This does happen, especially in majors that take longer to specialize in.”

Overall, not many architect students have been changing their majors, said William Palmore, associate architecture professor at New York Institute of Technology.


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