Low-return college degrees

Teaching makes Salary.com’s list of  8 College Degrees with the Worst Return on Investment.

A day-care center teacher averages $27,910 per year. If she earned a bachelor’s at a public university — and received no grants or scholarships — she’d get a 43 percent return on investment. The ROI is 13 percent for a pay-your-own-way private college degree.

Of course, K-12 teachers do better.  The median salary of a high school teacher is $54,473, according to Salary.com. That would generate an 85 percent return on investment for a public degree, 25 percent for a private degree.

Other low-return majors are sociology, psychology, communications, fine arts, religious studies, hospitality and nutrition. Generally, the “helping professions” pay badly.

8 degrees that will earn your money back are: math, information technology, human resources, econ, biology, engineering, marketing and English. English? Communications is a loser but English is a winner? (I majored in English and Creative Writing.)

Salary.com says English majors can end up as speech writers ($78,011 median pay) with a 122 percent public ROI. Communications manager ($88,498) earns a 139 percent ROI. Web content managers ($79,674) get to 125 percent. Nobody gets a positive return on investment for private college.

What the Chinese are studying

University enrollment has soared by 30 percent in China in recent years, but graduates are having trouble finding jobs, reports Online Colleges. “It’s estimated that one-third of China’s 5.6 million 2008 graduates were unemployed during their first year after school.”

Information technology tops the list of The 10 Hottest College Majors in China. China produced half a million IT graduates in 2009, but  there are plenty of jobs for well-qualified IT grads.

In addition to electrical and mechanical engineering, medicine, accounting, architecture and business management, the top 10 include English (not many jobs, but it helps with study in the U.S.), journalism (way too many graduates for the jobs) and law (too many graduates.)

College majors of the top 1%

The undergraduate majors that provide the best chance of reaching the top 1 percent in earnings are pre-med, economics, biochemistry, zoology and biology, according to the Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey. That suggests many high earners are doctors. The high-earning econ majors probably started businesses.

Some 5.9 percent of art history majors end up in the top 1 percent, beating out chemistry and finance. Perhaps art history majors are more likely to start out wealthy.

Qualifying for a good job is a very important reason for going to college, according to 85.9 percent of U.S. freshmen in an annual UCLA survey.  That’s up sharply since the recession began, edging out “to learn more about things that interest me.”

College’s economic value depends on the degree

College is worth it, but majors linked to occupations offer better job prospects than majors focused on general skills, concludes a new Georgetown report, Hard Times: Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal (pdf).

Another general rule: “People who make technology are better off than people who use technology.”

A bachelor’s degree is one of the best weapons a job seeker can wield in the fight for employment and earnings. And staying on campus to earn a graduate degree provides safe
shelter from the immediate economic storm, and will pay off with greater employability and earnings once the graduate enters the labor market. Unemployment for students with new
bachelor’s degrees is an unacceptable 8.9 percent, 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.

Except for architecture graduates, who’ve been hit hard by the construction crash, unemployment rates are higher in non-technical majors such as the arts (11.1 percent), humanities and liberal arts (9.4 percent), social sciences (8.9 percent) and law and public policy (8.1 percent).

Unemployment is low for computer science (7.8 percent) and math (6 percent) graduates who can write software and invent new applications, higher for information systems graduates (11.7 percent)  “who use software to manipulate, mine, and disseminate information.”  However, the report predicts jobs for computer majors will “bounce back strongly” as the recovery proceeds.

Median earnings among recent college graduates vary from $55,000 among engineering majors to $30,000 in the arts, psychology and social work. While new graduates in computer engineering average $60,000, physiology graduates average only $24,000.

The major matters

New college graduates with bachelor’s degrees start at $27,000 a year — if they can find jobs, according to a new study of 2009 and 2010 grads. That’s down from 2006-08, reports the New York Times. Worse, only 56 percent of the class of 2010 reported holding at least one job by spring, compared to 90 percent of graduates from the classes of 2006 and 2007.

Roughly half of recent college graduates said that their first job required a college degree.

The college major matters, concludes Andrew M. Sum, a Northeastern University economist who analyzed 2009 Labor Department data for college graduates under 25.


While, 77.6 percent of college graduates had jobs, only 55.6 percent had jobs that required college degrees. Some of the unemployed were in graduate school.

Only a minority of students with humanities and area-studies (Latin American Studies, women’s studies) majors held jobs requiring a degree.

Pay was low. (The chart includes people working part time, I think.)


Engineers earn more in non-degree-requiring jobs than humanities majors get in degree-requiring jobs.

College graduates who take jobs as bartenders and waitresses — 17 more are taking restaurant jobs, says the Times — crowd out young workers with fewer credentials.

Update:  The lifetime earnings of engineering, computer science and business majors are as much as 50 percent higher than lifetime earnings for humanities, arts, education and psychology majors, concludes a Georgetown study.

For top pay, major in engineering

Why aren’t more students pursuing engineering degrees, wonders Mark Bauerlein on Brainstorm. He links to a survey on the bachelor’s degrees that earn the top 10 starting salaries: Petroleum engineering starts at $86,220, followed by six other engineering specialties, computer science and information systems.