The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression did little to dampen U.S. students’ interest in commerce. The number of American college graduates holding business degrees jumped 6.2 percent from the end of the recession in 2009 to last year.
More than 12 million Americans, or one in five college graduates, have a business degree, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Four times as many adults hold business degrees as liberal arts and history majors among the nation’s almost 59 million people who have undergraduate degrees.
“Business is a safe harbor,” Kevin Burns, director of career services at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, said in a telephone interview. “So a lot of people were getting on the biggest boat they could in turbulent times.”
The concentration of business majors skews heavily to the Sun Belt, home to the 33 metropolitan areas with the greatest percentage of business-degree holders, according to the Census Bureau data released last month. The government began providing information about undergraduate degrees for people 25 years and older in its 2009 American Community Survey, an annual poll of 3 million households.
The Census Bureau also said yesterday the average American with an undergraduate business degree will earn $2.6 million over a lifetime, about $200,000 more than the average for all people with a bachelor’s degree.
The payoff is even better for engineers, who had the highest average lifetime earnings for college-educated graduates. They can expect to earn $3.5 million during a 40-year career.
The growth in science and engineering majors also surpassed that of undergraduate business-degree holders. Their ranks grew to 5.3 million, an 8.2 percent increase from the 4.9 million graduates in 2009.
The Census data was released amid concern that the U.S. is failing to produce enough science, technology, engineering and medical graduates to meet future needs. A May study by a consortium, including Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), the Partnership for New York City, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), estimated that restrictive immigration policies could contribute to a shortage of 224,000 high-technology workers by 2018.
The ranks of liberal arts and history degree holders fell to 3 million, down 100,000 from 2009. The number of graduates with degrees in multidisciplinary studies fell to 343,000, down 67 percent from the 1 million cited in 2009, the Census Bureau said.
While liberal arts degrees can provide more flexibility for mid-career changes, their benefits aren’t always immediate, said William Spellman, a University of North Carolina-Asheville historian and director of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges.
“It took me two years after I earned my Ph.D. to get an interview, much less a job,” he said.
Attention to liberal arts classes has helped boost the job- placement rate of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, said Roger Huang, the college’s dean. Last year, 99 percent of business undergraduates had job offers, he said.
“There’s something we do here that the market likes,” said Huang, whose school in March was rated No. 1 among undergraduate business programs for the third consecutive year by Bloomberg Businessweek.
Sean Egan, a 20-year-old accounting major at the South Bend, Indiana, school, said he has already found a summer internship with KPMG LLP. If graduates from Notre Dame’s business program weren’t getting jobs, “then it really wouldn’t matter what degree I earned because chances are that no one would be hiring,” said Egan, a junior.
“The down economy played a small role in why I chose accountancy,” said Egan, whose mother is an auditor for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and whose father is a portfolio manager for Bank of America. “I could not tell you the number of people, my parents included, who told me the world will always need accountants.”