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Hard Times 2013

By Marc Hendel, Senior Researcher and Data Analysis Manager

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In 2011, Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce released his groundbreaking paper "Hard Times, College Majors, Earnings and Unemployment, Not All College Degrees are Created Equal." In the paper, Carnevale and his coauthors used data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS) to demonstrate the variation in median salary and unemployment rates for various college majors. In May 2013, the same authors released an updated version of the paper using data from the results of the ongoing ACS survey from 2010 to 2011.

All College Degrees Still Not Created Equal

The more robust data set reaffirms the previous conclusion: not all college degrees are created equal. Despite the economic emergence from a recessionary period, the amount and type of variation observed in the earlier data is still present in the larger data set. As before, even within a given major category (such as health, engineering or business), starting salary and unemployment rates vary. Once again, expected differences in both metrics were also observed when comparing recent college graduates (bachelor's degree recipients) with experienced college graduates and graduate degree holders.

Major Findings

Five major findings listed on the Georgetown website include:

  1. Unemployment rates for recent architecture graduates have remained high (12.8%) despite the apparent surge in new housing construction and corporate expansion following the recession. Even experienced architecture degree holders continue to fare no better than workers in other fields; the group has an unemployment rate of 9.3% — no different from the economy as a whole.
  2. Unemployment is generally higher for nontechnical majors, such as the arts (11.4% for film, video and photographic arts), humanities and liberal arts (12.6% for anthropology and archeology), and social sciences (11.1% for political science and government).
  3. Surprisingly, unemployment rates for recent graduates in information systems is high (14.7%) compared with mathematics (5.9%) and computer science (8.7%).
  4. Unemployment rates are relatively low for recent graduates in education (5.0%), engineering (7.0%), and health and the sciences (4.8% each). The authors attribute this to the stability of these industries even through economic downturns.
  5. Graduates in psychology and social work also have a relatively low unemployment rate (8.8%). This rate is most likely held down because many people with these degrees work in healthcare or education.

Updated Data

The full report has useful tables with information about specific majors that may be useful in discussions with students. The following two graphs update the information previously released for the median salary and unemployment rates associated with various major categories.

Date: July 2013