Thursday, May 17, 2012

Hindsight on College Majors

I recently finished the third edition of the College Majors Handbook with Real Career Paths and Payoffs: The Actual Jobs, Earnings, and Trends for Graduates of 50 College Majors. The book will be coming out this summer, and I just came upon a survey research report that makes a good case for why this book is badly needed.

The College Majors Handbook compares 58 college majors based on the real experiences of graduates, including their different earnings, rate of unemployment, rate of employment in a career related to their major, job satisfaction, and types of work activities, among other topics. If there’s one lesson to be learned from this book, it’s that different college majors result in very different career outcomes. Some of these differences are economic: rate of unemployment, amount of earnings. It follows that as the cost of a college degree keeps rising, the importance of choosing the right college major also is increasing.

This lesson is driven home by a study issued this month by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, “Chasing the American Dream: Recent College Graduates and the Great Recession.” The researchers—Charley Stone, M.P.P., Carl Van Horn, Ph.D., and Cliff Zukin, Ph.D.—surveyed a nationally representative sample of 444 recent college graduates from the class of 2006 through 2011 to see how they are faring in the workplace.

As I read the many interesting findings in this report, I zeroed in on what it said about the respondents’ choice of a college major. Perhaps the most interesting finding of all was how the grads responded to this question: “Thinking back to college, is there anything you would have done differently to be successful today?” The most popular response (at 37%) was “Been more careful about selecting my major or chosen a different major.”

Those who answered this way got a follow-up question: “With the benefit of hindsight, what type of major would you have chosen instead?” The most popular responses to this question were “Professional major, like communications, education, nursing, or social work” (41%) and “A major in the field of math, science, engineering, or technology” (29%). The College Majors Handbook confirms the wisdom of this hard-won insight; these majors do tend to result in higher earnings and likelihood of employment.

The report also reveals why the grads expressed this level of regret. It turns out that only 39 percent reported having thought about job opportunities in the field when deciding upon their major. No other reason seems to have played a significant factor in their choice of a major.

If you know someone who is deciding on a college major, don’t let this young person make an uninformed decision. Certainly, the career outcome is not the only factor that needs to count in the decision. But it is probably the most important factor. That’s why it’s informative to see what actually has happened to graduates of different majors.

1 comment:

  1. Larry, I enjoyed this post series and I look forward to reading your new book. Thinking about these statistics, it's too bad that funding for career services and academic advising has been cut back just when it is most needed. Who is going to advise students, "It's fine to major in art history because it interests you but make sure to research and start acting on a plan that results in a post-graduation job and career path with promise - whether that's as a curator or a lawyer."