How Underemployed are College Graduates Today?

By Everet Rummel

Here’s more good news for college graduates: getting a degree is still worth it. The economy is improving and even at the height of the recession those with a bachelor’s earned a substantial amount more and were employed more often than those without one, on average. Even so, the nature of our recovery is a concern for some; are fresh graduates being employed in worthwhile, full-time jobs that actually require the type of education they received, or are they stuck in low-paying, part-time service jobs with few prospects for paying off their debt?

The sexy thing to do these past few years has been to paint a gloomy picture for soon-to-be college graduates. An endless stream of anecdotes portray life after school as a hopeless struggle with job applications, rejections, debt peonage, and living in your parents’ basement. Perhaps that was once the case for some, but the data says something different nowadays.

Microdata from the Census Bureau compiled by Ben Casselman at FiveThirtyEight shows the after-school performance of people under the age of 28 with certain types of college degrees, including median and quartile earnings as well as percent working in part-time and low-paying jobs.

From this data it is clear that your employment prospects after graduation are determined largely by your program of study. Petroleum engineering majors, for instance, earn by far the most; the median annual salary is $110,000 while the 25th quartile (those with this income earn more than 25% of the others) is $95,000! Meanwhile only 13% and 10% of petroleum engineering majors are stuck in part-time and low-paying jobs, respectively.

Okay, perhaps that was a fluke? Well, the top 6 majors in terms of median earnings potential are some kind of engineering: mineral ($75k), metallurgical ($73k), naval ($70k), nuclear ($65k), and chemical ($65k). Next is actuarial science ($62), astronomy ($62), and then a bunch more engineering types. The chances of underemployment are incredibly low for all of these majors, as well.

But not all of us are particularly well-suited for engineering or astrophysics. What are the prospects for some of the more popular, less technical majors? Psychology, one of the most popular majors in the U.S., shows median earnings of $32k while over half of graduates hold jobs that don’t require a degree. Biology — certainly popular on this campus — majors earn $33k and almost half could be considered underemployed. This goes to show that a STEM major does not necessarily guarantee one a job. However, psych and bio majors who go on to graduate school (and most do) earn substantially more while underemployment figures plummet. So pre-med and other grad-school-bound students in certain programs can rest easy with their choices, as well.

What about non-science majors? Education majors show relatively low earnings but have strong job prospects. Public policy ($50) and “court reporting” ($54k) show decent earnings, although over half of both may be underemployed. The lowest performers include Library Science ($22k) and Theater Arts ($27k), both of which show severe underemployment potential. In fact, 78% of drama majors are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree, while 31% are stuck in low-paying service-sector jobs.

Last week I argued that the recent college graduate unemployment/underemployment problem may be linked to a shortage in technical skills or certain majors tied to growing industries among graduates. This data adds some more teeth to the claim that technical skills are a boon in today’s evolving job market. While Science-related majors do well if they go to graduate school, Technology, Engineering, and Math students do consistently well with just a bachelor’s. Other majors tied to growing industries, such as education, nursing, and actuarial science, have low underemployment potential and thus greater success after college. I encourage anyone interested to Google search “Ben Casselman college major economic guide” to learn more.

The takeaway lesson from this data is that students need to adapt to a changing job market, just as they always have had to do since the advent of higher education.

Certain interest groups have tended to make broad pessimistic claims in order to drum up support for their causes. I am not a fan of buzz words and clichéd political rhetoric, especially when the data should inspire a bit of optimism in view of the job market. I encourage skepticism of any group who claims to represent our interests while ignoring the data and appealing to our fears with carefully-selected anecdotes cherry-picked statistics.


About rutgersobserver

The official student newspaper of Rutgers-Newark.
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