Over 20 million freshmen matriculate into college each year and the most common question we ask them is: Do you know what you’re going to major in? Colleges traditionally require students to declare their major during the second year and some colleges are requiring high school applicants to select a major, thus 18-20 year-olds make a decision that defines their college degree. But does this decision define a career?
To what extent do college graduates work in fields unrelated to their college degree? Luckily the National Survey of College Graduates asks respondents this question directly. Of college graduates, 54% report that their highest degree field of study is closely related to their job. Meanwhile, 25% report that their degree field is somewhat related to their job and 20% report that their field of study is not related to their current job. Demographically, more women than men report that their field of study is closely related to their job (56.3% and 52.5%, respectively).
This data is from the 2013 version of the survey, and the answer to the question “To what extent was your work on your principal job… related to your highest degree?” has remained relatively constant (see figure 1).
While this data only consists of responses from those who are employed (otherwise there is nothing to match), there may be individuals unemployed because of their college major choice.
Ultimately, many choose careers that do not match our formal education and learn on-the-job. Nothing says that salary or happiness is based solely on this match, so the 20% of individuals who report that their field of study is not related to their current job may be doing just fine!
(note: this is the first of three posts relating college majors and careers.)
This weekend, the New York Times included a section called “Education Life,” which featured some discussion of the purpose, role, and value of grad school. One of their “Most Emailed” articles is titled “Master’s as the New Bachelor’s” by Laura Pappano. I wanted to share a few comments given some research I had done on the subject and I also thought this was appropriate given the article I shared at the right in the “Article I’m Reading” section of my blog: Louis Menand’s New Yorker Piece Debating the Value of College.
These articles consist almost entirely of anecdotal evidence. I am unaware of an empirical analysis, but last year, I presented a paper by Dominic Brewer, et al. titled “Does it Pay to Attend an Elite Private College.” The paper considered the different economic returns of different types of colleges (private, public, small, and big). The punch line is:Yes, an Elite Private College has significantly more economic return than other colleges. BUT, the paper considered data from the seventies and eighties. This study needs to be reproduced given the vastly different college environment almost thirty years after the data was collected (the paper is from 1998).
Specifically, with the explosion of tuition, is an elite private undergraduate education worth the money. Also, with such a high proportion of high school graduates going on to college, is the elite undergraduate degree worth the same, or more depending on graduate school experiences? Also, thirty years ago students chose their college, while over the past few decades, colleges have much more control over who is admitted. Finally, since the recession and (hopefully?) post-recession, are labor market returns any different given workers’ educational background?
So, is an undergraduate degree “worth” the skyrocketing cost? I would agree with the paper I cited earlier by Brewer, et al. that only elite private colleges garner a return worth the significant tuition differences to large public universities. That being said, according to Ms. Pappano’s NYT article and Menand’s “First Theory” , maybe undergraduate degrees will not provide the signal that we prescribe to them. Is acquiring a Master’s or other graduate degree just the new sorting mechanism for potential employers?