Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal

January 9, 2012

There has been much hand-wringing of late over the value of college degrees. In the past few years, the news has been thick with stories about recent college grads who shoulder a hefty debt burden while working jobs as baristas or bagging clerks. This has led many pundits to declare that college just isn't worth the effort for many students.

The Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown has come out with yet another study that unsettles that conclusion. “Unemployment for students with new bachelor’s degrees is an unacceptable 8.9 percent," the others concede, "but it’s a catastrophic 22.9 percent for job seekers with a recent high school diploma — and an almost unthinkable 31.5 percent for recent high school dropouts.”

But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that not all college degrees are created equal, at least not in the job market. Unemployment rates vary widely, and jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) generally fare pretty well. For example, less than eight percent of recent computer science graduates and six percent of recent math grads are jobless. Things look worse for recent grads in the arts (11.1 percent), humanities (9.4 percent) and social sciences (8.9 percent). Average annual earnings vary a lot, too, with recent graduates in engineering earning about $55,000 and recent grads in the arts or psychology earning around $30,000.

There were of course exceptions to the rule. More than 13 percent of recent grads in architecture, who need a strong grounding in STEM, were jobless. Among Information Systems (IS) grads, it’s 11.7 percent. The former have been hard hit by the housing crash, and the latter are more likely (in CEW’s words) to “use technology” than to “make” it. (Yet there are signs of brighter days ahead for young people with degrees in IS: Their more experienced peers are much less likely to be jobless (5.4 percent.)

It’s all too easy to look at these numbers and sneer at majors in fields like arts and humanities. Don’t. It’s never a good idea to disparage whole disciplines. But the news from Georgetown does suggest that all students, even arts and humanities students, would do well to get some series STEM skills under their belts. Arts, humanities and STEM might just be a killer combination.

Photo: Guillaume Paumier, Wikimedia Commons.

Tags: jobs & workforce, STEM degrees