In today’s economic environment, students are increasingly focusing on matching the degree they earn with the job market after they graduate. To be competitive in today’s job market, students need to graduate with marketable skills. They also need to become broadly educated individuals.
Many people still value a liberal arts education because it provides a broad understanding of a wide range of subject areas and it encourages the acquisition of knowledge rather than information, thereby creating a more “well-rounded” individual. In the past, employers sought these graduates with generalized skills.
In a New York Times article titled “Making College Relevant” (2009), Kate Zernike points out that a liberal arts college in Maine is offering free classes or paid student loans for a year to any student who cannot find work in their field within six months of graduation. She also points to other examples such as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which is eliminating its philosophy major, and Michigan State University, which is doing away with its American studies and classics offerings. Zernike goes on to point out that parents and students are “increasingly focused on what comes after college. What’s the return on investment…”
Colleges and universities have always adjusted their course offerings to reflect the needs, desires, and social causes as well as the economic realities of the times. During the 1960s and 1970s, colleges offered courses that addressed environmental, civil rights, women’s, and anti-war issues. The issues may be different, but the reaction is the same – adapt and modify or face obsolescence.
The key to managing the college experience is to balance economic practicalities with the need to acquire life-long skills. Every year college students “choose a major.” Selecting a field of study is often based on academic interest and professional practicality. Four years of study in college will go better, and be easier, for those who pick something that stimulates the mind. It is also a good idea to know that some degree programs have an excess of graduates compared to available jobs and job openings. The following will assist in that decision-making process.
Degrees and Growth Rates
More than 1.5 million bachelor degrees were awarded for the year ending June 2007, an increase of nearly 39,000 from the year before. As a comparison, in 1965, 494,000 graduated with bachelor degrees. Since then bachelor degree graduates show a nearly unbroken increase with few exceptions.
Between 1990 and 2007, 22.5 million people received BA degrees from United States colleges and universities. During the same period the labor force increased by 28.4 million people.
The annual growth rate for people receiving BA degrees during that 17-year period was nearly double the growth rate in the labor force, or 2.21 percent compared to 1.14 percent. BA degrees growing faster than labor force guarantees that college educated degree holders have a growing share of the labor force.
So, what does this mean for the student trying to decide on a specific major in college?
BA Degrees in Selected Programs
The increase of new graduates entering the labor force with college degree skills is significant by itself. Consistent and successful work in college correlates with work and performance on the job, assuring that BA degrees in any program improve employment opportunities. Finishing a BA degree has advantages in the job market regardless of the degree program. However, the distribution of degrees by program changes the job market, especially at the entry-level.
For those with specific job preferences and career goals, it is good to know that some degree programs have many graduates, but few new jobs, and vice versa. Given that the National Center for Education Statistics at the Department of Education publish degree data by program and the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the Department of Labor publishes job data by occupation, it is possible to match degrees with jobs to make informed decisions and avoid surprises.
Matching Jobs and Degrees
Take the BA degree in psychology, a major with a degree-job mismatch. There were 90,000 BA degrees in psychology in the year ending June 2007, or nearly 6 percent of BA degrees for the year, but no jobs using, or needing, psychology skills that do not require a master’s or doctoral degree. Therefore, unless a student is willing to complete a graduate degree, there are few job opportunities in the field.
Computer and Information Science also has a mismatch, but in the opposite direction. Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services had 42,000 BA degrees in ten degree programs. Since 2004, jobs needing BA degree skills in computer science are up over 324,000 with expected openings close to 100,000 a year. Computer systems analysts, software engineers, network computer systems administrators, and analysts are in high demand and doing well.
Engineering had 67,092 BA degrees in 34 degree programs. Engineering jobs continue to grow with almost 149,000 new jobs since 2004 with 48,000 anticipated job openings. Engineering continues to be an employable major.
Communications and Journalism programs had 78,420 BA degrees in eight degree programs. The large number and continued growth of these degrees comes at a time when newspapers and television are cutting back on jobs. Job prospects here are not hopeless because selected media and communications jobs are increasing. Public relations specialists, editor, and technical writer have nearly 400,000 jobs and some growth, but journalism degrees are in surplus.
The teaching profession continues to grow at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels with over a million jobs a year in secondary teaching alone and an estimated 20,000 new jobs a year in recent years. It is a good idea for anyone doing degree programs in social science to consider finishing the requirements for a teaching certificate. Those with BA degrees in mathematics (14,954 degrees), English, foreign language and literature (75,392 degrees), and Liberal Arts, General Studies and humanities, (44,255 degrees) may find teaching is a viable and rewarding outlet for employment.
Health Professions and Related Clinical Sciences programs produced 101,810 BA degrees in 34 degree programs. Health care jobs have continued to grow every month right through the 2008 and 2009 recession with registered nurse leading the way and therapy, technologist and technician jobs right behind. There are many more jobs than BA degrees, making health care one of America’s most employable degrees.
John Bedecarre and Scott Olster state in CNN Money.com (2010) that “the number of registered nurses is expected to swell to 3.2 million by 2018, accounting for approximately 581,500 new jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.” With the aging of the population 65 and older (19% in 2030), the need for skilled nursing care and home health care in particular will rise significantly. Bedecarre and Olster also project fields such as network systems and data analysis, software engineering, biomedical engineering, accountants, auditors, and veterinarians will be growth fields of the future.
A Word of Caution
Some in the world of financial planning express the view that the value of a college degree has diminished in recent years. In a Washington Post article titled “Is College Overrated?” (2010), Sarah Kaufman raises the question of whether the cost of a college degree is a wise investment. In her article, Kaufman states, “The hefty price of a college degree has some experts worried that its benefits are fading.” She goes on to quote Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University as stating “I think it makes less sense for more families than it did five years ago. It’s become more problematic about whether people should be going to college.”
Noted financial planner, Ric Edelman (2010) has observed that in 1970, tuition and fees for full-time undergraduate students averaged $480 at public universities and $1,980 at private universities. Today, those numbers are $7,020 and $26,273, respectively. Clearly, the investment is significantly more than it was 40 years ago.
In defense of a four-year degree, Kaufman (2010) points out that, on average, those who earn a college degree will earn 53% more income over the course of their career than those who hold only a high school diploma. The median annual income of young adults with bachelor degrees is $46,000. For those with high school diplomas, the median income is $30,000. For many with degrees in engineering, computer science, accounting, and the health-care field, this holds true. For others in fields such as psychology, journalism, and the behavioral sciences, this wage gap shrinks. In Kaufman’s words, “If you major in accounting or engineering, you’re pretty likely to get a return on your investment. If you’re majoring in anthropology or social work or education, the rate on return is going to be a good deal lower, on average.”
On top of all of this information, the stories of people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Dan Snyder, Michael Dell, and David Geffen – billionaires who never graduated from college – are thrown around daily as examples of how young people can be successful without a college degree. While enticing stories, they are generally as unrealistic as the stories of sports figures with less than high school degrees who also become extremely wealthy. Statistically, this will not be the fate of most young people.
A Final Word
News articles like the one noted above question the worth of a college investment. Job and wage data makes it certain college still pays, especially for those attending state supported community and four-year colleges. Matching a program of study to today’s job market makes professional and financial sense.
Finding a balance between becoming an “educated person” and becoming “employable” in today’s consumer-driven economy is no easy task. These goals are not mutually exclusive. Personal, career, and financial rewards are significant and worth considering as one goes through the process of selecting a major in college. The key is to find that delicate balance between practicality and the desire to become a well rounded, educated person.
Bedecarre, John, and Scott Olster. (2010, September 7). Fastest growing jobs in America.” Fortune on CNN Money.com. Retrieved from http://www.finance.yahoo.com/career-work/article/110586/fastest-growing-jobs
Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Survey. (2007). Washington, DC: U.S Government Printing Office.
Dept. of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2007). Washington, DC. U.S. Government Printing Office.
Edelman, Ric. (2010, October). Are you making this common college planning mistake? Inside Personal Finance, 2
Kaufman, Sarah. (2010, September 10). Is college overrated? The Washington Post, p. C1.
Zernike, Kate. (2009, December 29). Making college relevant. The New York Times.