Four Years Out, the Great Recession's College Grads Fared Well—if They Picked the Right Major

Business majors who graduated during the Great Recession did almost everything right when they hit the job market. They worked long hours and switched jobs less than their counterparts in other fields. Despite their toil, they earned far less than their tech-savvy peers, according to a report released on Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education.

In 2012, college grads with computer science degrees had a much lower unemployment rate than business majors—4.9 percent, compared with business students’ 6 percent. The jobs they had were better paying, too, yielding a median $66,000 per year compared with business majors’ $50,000, according to the report, which looked at 2012 career outcomes for students who graduated from college during the 2007-08 academic year.

Business grads hustled just as hard, if not harder, than their computer geek peers, working at their main job 42.8 hours per week on average, compared to 42 hours for computer and information sciences majors. They averaged 1.9 jobs since graduation, making them nearly as stable in the job market as computer science students, who averaged 1.8 jobs.

What gives?

Anthony Carnevale, director and research professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, says long hours and job stability don’t make up for the fact that workers who sat through management classes instead of programming courses as undergraduates just don’t have as many valuable skills—yet. “At the entry level, the technology skills just buy you more because it’s so important [to companies],” he says.

As they work their way up a company ladder, he says, maybe getting an MBA to reach higher management positions, business majors will eventually catch up, Carnevale says his preliminary research shows. “The tech people are the engine, but the driver is the businessperson. When the businessperson becomes mid-career, they get their hands on the wheel.”

College graduates as a group had an easier time steering their early careers through the country’s unemployment crisis than the general population. Overall, 6.7 percent of 2007-08 graduates were unemployed in 2012, compared with a national unemployment rate of 8.1 percent. Business majors were only a bit more likely to have jobs than other college grads: 6.6 percent were unemployed. Only 4.9 percent of computer and information sciences majors were unemployed.

By far the biggest winners were graduates with health-care degrees. Those who majored in health-care fields had an astonishingly low 2.2 percent unemployment rate. Health-care majors made a median $54,800 at their primary job, even with the shortest working hours, at 36.6 hours per week.

Just getting a college degree didn’t guarantee you better-than-average outcomes, however. Graduates in three fields exceeded the national unemployment rate: Social sciences, humanities, and “general studies and other” all had unemployment rates above 9 percent. Almost 24 percent of humanities majors held four or more jobs after graduation—far more than in any other field. They also spent the highest average percentage of time unemployed in 2012, 7.5 percent, according to the survey.

What’s more, the job advantage offered by a college degree seems to favor the young: 9.6 percent of those who were 30 or older when they got their degree were unemployed in 2012.

The survey adds to the mounting evidence that business students, who have made up the most popular undergraduate major for more than three decades, earn more than social sciences or humanities majors, but still lose out to peers who have more technical skills early in their careers.

Still, Carnevale says, “These graduates narrowly escaped the recession, in a way. They were at the very front end. We didn’t have a jobs recession yet when they were finishing up [college].”

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