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Employment and the Undergraduate Degree

March 5, 2008

During a period of economic uncertainty, it's not much fun seeing data from generally more prosperous times. A new report from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics takes a look at employment trends over a 10-year span starting in 1993, and the outlook was positive for college graduates. It took time for some to find a job with "career potential," the report notes, but most had done so by 2003.

The path differed somewhat, particularly in the early career years, for students depending on their focus. Those with "career oriented" majors appeared to become more established in the workforce earlier than did their counterparts with "academic" majors, according to the report.

“Ten Years After College: Comparing the Employment Experiences of 1992-93 Bachelor’s Degree Recipients with Academic and Career-Oriented Majors,” includes longitudinal data (surveying from 1994, 1997 and 2003) tracking the work experience of roughly 9,000 bachelor's degree recipients.

The report looks at categories such as employment status, stability and job perceptions. It defines career-oriented majors as those that prepare students for employment in a specific occupation -- business, engineering, etc. Academic majors are everything else -- including social and behavioral science, physical sciences and humanities. (According to that premise, about two-thirds of those surveyed had career-oriented majors.)

Over all, the percentage of graduates who were employed and not enrolled in any type of degree or certificate program held steady at roughly 75 percent in 1994 and 1997. The number increased to 80 percent in 2003, when some of those who had gone to graduate schools entered the work force.

Career-oriented majors were less likely to seek out graduate education, the report showed. A greater proportion of them were employed and not taking classes at all three checkpoints (57 percent) than were their counterparts (38 percent), and if they were without a job, it tended to be for a shorter amount of time.

Ten years after graduating, just under half of the entire cohort had been unemployed -- not working but job hunting -- at one time or another. Temporary unemployment became less and less of an issue the longer graduates were out of college.

And by 2003, most of those surveyed said they were settled in a job that they considered a career. Most reported being satisfied with pay, job security and opportunity for promotion. Career-oriented majors were only slightly more likely to consider their work a career (91 percent) than were their counterparts (87 percent). They were in their jobs longer (5.6 years), on balance, than people in the academic group (4.3 years) -- and that proved true even for those who hadn't pursued more education.

Percentage distribution of 1992–93 bachelor’s degree recipients’ employment and enrollment status in 1994, 1997 and 2003.

Undergraduate Major Only Employed Only Enrolled Both Neither
1994        
Total 75.6% 6.7% 11.3% 6.4%
-Academic 67.8 10.4 14.2 7.6
--Social and behavioral sciences 72.1 8.3 13.4 6.1
--Arts and humanities 72.5 7.9 12.4 7.1
--Biological sciences 52.8 20 17.3 9.9
--Math/physical sciences 57.8 17.5 18.7 6
--Other 66.9 6.7 14.2 12.3
         
-Career-oriented 79.7 4.8 9.7 5.8
--Business and management 85.2 2.5 7 5.3
--Education 74.8 6.1 13.8 5.2
--Health 76.3 6 11.8 5.8
--Engineering 71.5 8.4 12.9 7.2
--Computer Science 84.3 4.9 6 4.8
--Other 80.2 5 8.4 6.4
         
STEM fields 65.5 12.9 14.3 7.4
Non-STEM 77.6 5.5 10.7 6.2
         
1997        
Total 76.3 4.8 13 5.9
-Academic 67.2 9.4 15.9 7.5
--Social and behavioral sciences 69.6 6.7 17.2 6.6
--Arts and humanities 72.1 6.2 12.7 9
--Biological sciences 49 27.3 16.1 7.6
--Math/physical sciences 61.6 13.6 16.6 8.2
--Other 70.9 3.9 19.3 5.9
         
-Career-oriented 81.1 2.4 11.5 5
--Business and management 86 1.7 7.5 4.8
--Education 69.6 2.4 21.1 6.9
--Health 80.6 3.1 9.3 7
--Engineering 80.1 4.4 13.9 1.7
--Computer Science 88.2 2.6 7.1 2.1
--Other 83.3 2.4 9.7 4.6
         
STEM fields 69.3 12.1 14.1 4.6
Non-STEM 77.6 3.5 12.8 6.1
         
2003        
Total 79.9 1.1 7.1 11.9
-Academic 76.1 1.5 8.8 13.6
--Social and behavioral sciences 75 1.7 10.2 13.1
--Arts and humanities 73.5 1.3 7.7 17.4
--Biological sciences 81.2 1.6 8.5 8.7
--Math/physical sciences 83.4 1.6 7.6 7.3
--Other 74.2 0.8 8.5 16.5
         
-Career-oriented 82 0.9 6.2 10.9
--Business and management 85.9 0.4 4.8 8.8
--Education 69.7 1.3 10.2 18.8
--Health 80.6 0.7 7.2 11.5
--Engineering 86.7 0.9 6.7 5.8
--Computer Science 83 2.5 4.5 10
--Other 85.4 1.3 4.4 9
         
STEM fields 84.1 1.4 7.1 7.5
Non-STEM 79.2 1.1 7.1 12.7
         

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

On the whole, academic majors earned lower salaries than their counterparts in 2003. But, as the report notes, the overall salary difference between academic and career-oriented majors who were employed full time was not statistically significant after taking other factors into account.

Career-oriented majors reported being more satisfied with their pay (68 percent) than academic majors, but the report didn't find significant differences in other categories.

Debra Humphreys, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said the report largely confirms the group's feelings that too much pressure is placed on students to choose the "right" major.

"The image is if you major in an academic subject you'll be flipping burgers all your life," Humphreys said. "This report doesn't show that. It does show that [students with career-oriented majors] get into their career track more quickly, but suggests that in a few years, there's not a big difference in job satisfaction."

Humphreys added that while the NCES data is important and relevant, it’s also somewhat dated. The business environment is “changing faster than ever," Humphreys said, and business leaders are telling the group that it's most important that students have a broad set of transferable skills.

AAC&U's survey of 300 employers, conducted last year, showed that new hires had the skills needed for entry-level work but often lacked the background needed to take on advanced assignments. (That report didn’t differentiate among majors.)

 

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