As tens of thousands of students enter college for the first time, tens of thousands of parents are wondering whether the investment will pay off. Does the major a student selects affect future earning potential? In other words, what are the worst-paying college majors?
Many freshmen have little or no idea what they want to do with their lives after graduation. And stories about the vast numbers of unemployed or underemployed graduates, especially in these post-recession years, do not allay parents' anxieties. Several studies, including one from Georgetown University, point out that the choice of college major correlates with both employment and earnings, which in turn are affected by economic cycles. Earning a degree in education, for example, may pave the way towards more job stability but lead to a lower salary than, say, architecture. Overall, students who confine their studies to the arts, humanities, and human services can expect to earn less than those who major in technical fields like engineering, math and computers, the sciences, and business.
As the chart below shows, the worst-paying college majors include drama and theater arts, anthropology and archaeology, fine arts, psychology, and English literature.
|Major||Recent undergrad unemployment rate||Recent grad salary||Graduate degree unemployment rate||Graduate degree salary|
Drama and Theater Arts
Anthropology and Archaeology
Commercial Art and Graphic Design
Political Science and Government
Business Management and Administration
Marketing and Marketing Research
The salary averages and unemployment rates listed below are ranked from low salary to high. Data comes from 2010-2011 American Community Survey sample.
For any parent or student concerned about low returns on an investment in an undergraduate degree, any of the "squishy: majors (sociology, anyone?) won't do. This doesn't necessarily consign such fields to the "worst" column for students who are passionate about the subject matter and unswayed by pecuniary considerations. But if they wind up working retail jobs for a decade after graduation, you might wonder why they bothered going to college at all.
To get a grassroots perspective on the worst-paying college majors, we spoke with two experts: Steve Lesser, Managing Director of Delta Advisors in New Jersey and Jane Weiland, founder of Long Island-based Hire Education, which helps guide recent college grads onto career paths. The consensus observation: Figuring out what to do with a college degree is far more important than the actual major. "If you have a degree in humanities and your goal is to work with people, what does that mean?" Ms. Weiland asked. "You need to identify an objective." Mr. Lesser concurred, noting that it's less the major that gets in the way of finding a job but "more about how (new grads) communicate (their) actual skills." He said that students are often attracted to an industry without thinking about what specific occupation draws on the skills they acquired that are valuable to an employer.
On our behalf, Ms. Weiland queried several recent graduates to learn what they think about the matter. As it happens, all earned liberal arts degrees, so their experience seemed particularly apt. For the most part they agreed that the specific major doesn't mean much. Some suggested that the school you attended might matter; i.e., a recent Harvard grad may have less difficulty finding a job that pays well than someone who attended a small, low-profile college. But what they all concluded is that motivation is the key factor.
That said, students who choose a major that teaches a specific skill, such as nursing, will most likely have more job-search success than a liberal arts major. But, as Mr. Lesser pointed out, many students mistakenly see a major as a career track. "Schooling is a way to accumulate skills," he said. "Music majors, for instance, are good at math and at seeing patterns." He suggested that graduates target occupations in which the skills associated with the major would be beneficial.
To illustrate this point, Ms. Weiland reviewed the trajectories of three recent graduates. An English major landed a job as an editor at the Huffington Post; a psychology major is now working in human resources; and an art history major is a stylist at Ralph Lauren. In each case the former student translated the skills they learned in what would seem to be among the worst-paying college majors into marketable expertise.
So parents, stop fretting that the anthropology degree has no value. What the student learned was how to conduct a detailed analysis of a situation and coherently communicate the findings. These skills are what make the alum employable, even if he or she never makes a dime working at a dig.
Still not convinced? A recent survey of employers conducted for the The American Association of Colleges and Universities found that most employers say the capacity for critical thinking, problem-solving, and clear communication is more important than an undergraduate major.
Numbers don't lie, though, and data unquestionably show there are better- and worse-paying college majors. But is that what it's all about?