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Most College Graduates Have Jobs Unrelated To Their Major

Chart

Ezra Klein links to a New York Federal Reserve Bank study that shows that few college graduates are working in a field related to their major:

Here’s some interesting new data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The vast majority of college grads work in jobs unrelated to their major:

In 2010, only 62.1 percent of U.S. college graduates had a job that even required a college degree. And just 27.3 percent of college grads had a job that was related to their major at all.

On some level, this isn’t entirely surprising. Large numbers of people graduate with degrees in Communications and Political Science and, if they’re not moving on to graduate school, it’s unlikely you’ll find most of them working in the communications or political fields.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    I think the most useful forms of these surveys talk to recent college grads, and then should ask them “how do you feel about that?”

    My first few jobs used my Chem degree, but bridged from chemical-computer-programming to just computer programming. My “last answer” wouldn’t have told that story.

    I think I was quite happy with my BS Chem early on, and only later realized that CS at Berkeley would have been a bit better for me.

    In 2010, only 62.1 percent of U.S. college graduates had a job that even required a college degree.

    That’s the scary number, and we should be brave enough to ask those kids (a) how they feel about that, and (b) what they think should be done.

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  2. john personna says:

    On some level, this isn’t entirely surprising. Large numbers of people graduate with degrees in Communications and Political Science and, if they’re not moving on to graduate school, it’s unlikely you’ll find most of them working in the communications or political fields.

    There was that very interesting graphic at Kids Prefer Cheese.

    The thickness of the brown bar shows how many students complete the undergraduate degree, and the thickness of the green bar shows completion of a higher degree. About half of political science and government students go on to advanced degrees, and do well if they do, with a 2.5 wage multiplier. Compare to business management and administration, where undergrads get about the same wage benefit, but very few go on to advanced degrees.

    Interestingly the height of that political science and government bar is about the same as the one for electrical engineering, meaning they do have about the same number of graduates. Of course the wage premiums are somewhat unequal.

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  3. Liberal Capitalist says:

    … pfffft.

    Do you think that I actually expected to make a living on dual degrees of Sociology and Political Science? (… and that minor in Geography?)

    Hell no!

    While it may explain my proclivity for visiting websites like this one… There is far greater money to be made “elsewhere” in this country.

    College opened the door, world travel broadened the view… throw in equal amounts of hard work and dumb luck, and you can do well.

    … lol… actually “use” a social science degree… priceless.

    Next thing you’ll expect me to make a living writing books!

    :)

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  4. Gromitt Gun says:

    Seeing as my first career post-college was doing operations and adminstrations of variable life and annuity products and group retirement plans, and my BA is in English, yeah. But… and here’ s a big “but”… a BA/BS in *something* was required to work on the floor at all of the big insurance companies in Hartford, and very very few of us had a degree in business. So pretty much everyone I worked with in the Operations, Account Management, and Customer Service areas had a BA in some sort of humanties or social sciences or possibly communications. Anyone with an accounting or finance degree got sucked into those areas quickly, same with marketing, and anyone with a degree that had enough calculus or statistics was told right away how much $$ they could make in the Actuarial Apprenticeship programs.

    So, on the one hand, I did not become an English teacher or a technical writer. On the other hand, a BA from a College of Humanities or a College of Social Sciences pretty much is the career training for non-technical home office insurance/investment industry work if you go to a college in Western Mass or Central Connecticut.

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  5. john personna says:

    At the end of the “cheese” article (above) Angus says:

    Note that these graphs are equally consistent with both the signaling and capital formation views of higher ed.

    I don’t think it is necessary (or correct) to subscribe purely to either view. There must be a mix, and not a uniform one. A brain surgeon has developed a lot of human capital which she uses directly in her work. On the other hand, an English major joining an insurance firm is signalling his ability, and rank versus other applicants.

    In 1970 about 45% of all high school graduates went to college. In 2009 that number hit 70 percent. [link] We went from a college minority to a majority and discovered an unintended consequence. The higher graduation numbers diluted the “signal.” The premium for being in the minority was displaced by the non-premium for being in the majority.

    The majors that were skills oriented (be they in business or the sciences) held up well, while those majors which had been signalling oriented declined.

    The raft of “is college worth it?” articles published in recent years are all about this unintended consequence, and the ramifications of reduced signalling power.

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  6. JKB says:

    Why is this a surprise. Especially for anyone who when to college then tried to find a job. Jobs and college majors don’t line up. Even where they do say in engineering or even nursing, you still might not end up working in a job with a direct link. Or you may migrate out as higher paying opportunities appear.

    The problem is that now, the cost of that degree far exceeds the increase in pay except in very few fields or if you happen to luck into a high paying field at the right time. There is also some evidence that the “college experience” no longer prepares students to move from guest to staff. Perhaps it never did and the work habits were inculcated by the college student’s environment before college. Perhaps the adoption of habits that made them successful at work were what caused them to be successful enough to get in and complete college?

    And is the wage premium, since not necessarily related to working in their major, a result of college or a function of the type of people who successfully complete college regardless of the field of study?

    It seems the problem is we speak of “college” when really we need to break that up. James put forth what I’ll call the “ring knocker” theory of college (you go to a famous college, become fuck buddies with people who will help you economically in the future) and lamented financially poor students were being left out. Then there are the nerdy students who just aren’t going to get much out of the wider social scene. They’ll study and find a few similar friends to synthesize ideas with. They have potential to be transformative even without completing college. But you also have the “other” college student. The not so social, the not so nerdy, the older student, the commuter student, the one looking for an economic leg up. Those students are not getting the large benefits but are incurring large debts. (not mentioned are the drop outs, who have debt but no magic piece of paper).

    In the past, the “other” students didn’t do to bad. They got jobs, sometimes making the cut based on possession of magic paper. They then traded on their skills developed in the job. They aren’t doing so well now. Even the ring knockers are having a bit of rough time. So the investment of time and long term debt is making college look less attractive. Especially now that the means to gain the knowledge in a modern student centric manner is at hand.

    Let’s face it. You can get food, television, entertainment, etc. on demand. What you still can’t get is credentialed learning on your schedule when you are ready to take the best advantage of it. No, credentialed learning is scheduled without any student input and presented in a one-off get it now or get left behind format. Miss a class you are out of luck. Teacher sick, too bad, there’s a schedule. Administrator decides today no class for you because a “love in” is more important, screw you if you disagree. Need to go over the material again, hope your memory and notes are good. It is a rather archaic manner of transferring knowledge when you think about it. Especially, when the material could be presented digitally where it can be viewed when you’ve time to put your mind to it, repeated as necessary and offered as something more than a book reference and a droning voice.

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  7. superdestroyer says:

    One of the takeaway from this sort of study is that people who work in their degree fields such as petroleum engineers, pharmacists, or accountants probably make more money, on average, than people who are working in a field that just requires a college degree.

    If you look at the top ten paying degrees, those are degrees where people are working in their field. No one gets to work as a chemical or petroleum engineer without the requisite degree. Maybe blue collar students who are the first in their family to go to college and who are sharp should think about pursuing a degree that leads to a degree in the field (think nursing) that demands the degree instead of something that leads to a requirement for either graduate school or getting in the door versus all of the rich-kid liberal arts majors.

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  8. wr says:

    @superdestroyer: “If you look at the top ten paying degrees, those are degrees where people are working in their field…. Maybe blue collar students who are the first in their family to go to college and who are sharp should think about pursuing a degree that leads to a degree in the field (think nursing) that demands the degree instead of something that leads to a requirement for either graduate school or getting in the door versus all of the rich-kid liberal arts majors. ”

    Odd. I have a useless degree in comparative literature. Using what I learned there, I suspect I’ve earned more in a single year writing and producing TV than you will make in your entire life.

    Human beings aren’t robots and we aren’t machines. Despite the best efforts of reformers, from Stalin through the current MOOC-freaks, to make us into them.

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  9. Kari Q says:

    It seems to me that the takeaway here could equally be that those “useless” liberal arts degrees aren’t so useless after all. As Gromitt Gun said, the degree is often needed to get your foot in the door.

    Beyond that, since a majority now get college degrees, the lack of one is often going to be taken as a signal of low motivation, aspiration, or achievement. With degrees so readily accessible, being without one has negative “signalling power” in john personna’s terms.

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  10. superdestroyer says:

    @wr:

    I wonder how much they pay people writing and producing television shows who do not understand something as average income. A few liberal arts majors do makes a lot. But most do not make anything. the movie/television industry is a very good example of a log-normal distribution of incomes where a few people make a lot and most people do not make much. Why do not think that Hollywood has to erect such large barriers to keep wannabes out.

    However, if one would be advising a sharp student from a blue collar family, would you really want to tell them to take a shot against long odds to work in the movies or television or would you tell them to major in computer or petroleum engineering where they can make six figures and where most of the people working the field make that kind of money.

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  11. Just Me says:

    I don’t work in the field I got my degree in.

    This is mostly because I have a disabled child and wanted to work hours similar to his school hours-which led me into working in education (I have mostly worked in title I but currently work as a substitute-the district cut hours and dropped benefits so opted to work in an area I had more control over).

    I don’t regret it at all.

    Given the current cost of college I am not convinced getting a degree for the sake of getting one is a wise use of money but I don’t think that people working occupations outside their major is an indictment of the post secondary education system either.

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  12. Ben says:

    @superdestroyer:

    if one would be advising a sharp student from a blue collar family, would you really want to tell them to take a shot against long odds to work in the movies or television or would you tell them to major in computer or petroleum engineering where they can make six figures and where most of the people working the field make that kind of money.

    It depends. Does that sharp student have even the slightest interest in those subjects? I know a couple people who went and got STEM degrees solely for the money, without the slightest interest or enjoyment in those subjects. Uniformly, they are not the standout performers at their jobs, they are middling performers who hate their jobs intensely regardless of any financial security that the job may provide them. Is financial potential the absolute only thing that should be taken into account when determining a course of study?

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  13. john personna says:

    @Ben:

    David Brooks has a very good column on words. To use some of those words which have fallen out of favor, I think the prudent thing, the wise thing, for a student to do is to get an ordered list of degrees and their financial returns, to start at the top, and to read down until they do find something they love.

    This is more prudent than starting with some random thing you love and waiting to see how it works out in life.

    Per the “cheese” link above, well-rewarded degrees are quite varied, and not all in the STEMs, though if you can love a STEM field, you might be set.

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  14. Kari Q says:

    @john personna:

    I think the prudent thing, the wise thing, for a student to do is to get an ordered list of degrees and their financial returns, to start at the top, and to read down until they do find something they love.

    Remembering the age at which people attend college, expecting prudent and wise long-term thinking from them is probably not wise. Not that they aren’t smart and prudent about some things, but that sort of thinking is just not something I would anticipate from any but the most pragmatic of 18-22 year olds.

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  15. john personna says:

    @Kari Q:

    In my family, and my friends families, we certainly had conversations about why one went to college, and it wasn’t just to “follow a dream” as I sometimes hear.

    The tiger mom I know just told her kids “no” to some choices ;-), and you know there might not be as much wrong with that as we came to believe, for a while, in America.

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  16. john personna says:

    (For sure, a kid is going to be focused on the 4 year college experience, but advice from elders should be about prudence and long term goals. When a state university builds amenities and etc. they aren’t doing that. They are pandering, and failing their broader mission.)

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  17. Ben says:

    @john personna:

    I agree that would be prudent. The interesting thing about that decision-making process, though, is that it would result in no one ever going to the social sciences, humanities or fine arts. Should those fields not exist at all? That would be quite the interesting generation.

    Also, the fields are not as varied as you’re implying. If we look at the graph that shows the wage multipliers above or around 2 for a bachelors degree only, we’re reduced to Electrical engineering, Computer Science, Economics, Accounting, and Nursing. You have to go down to almost 1.5 before getting to anything that isn’t STEM or healthcare related. (I am including economics, accounting and finance as all being under the Math part of STEM)

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  18. john personna says:

    I agree that would be prudent. The interesting thing about that decision-making process, though, is that it would result in no one ever going to the social sciences, humanities or fine arts. Should those fields not exist at all?

    My position is that they should exist, but not at all schools. The error was not thinking that people should study social sciences, humanities or fine arts but that cranking them out at low ranking schools was a good idea.

    Basically I’m looking at the same data James does, about the overwhelming dominance of top schools in these fields, and accepting the reality that they will continue that dominance.

    (On diversity of fields, I took Accounting, Engineering, and Nursing to be quite different.)

    [edited for clarity]

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  19. Just Me says:

    My daughter has a friend who loves theatre. She loved it so much she wanted to major in it. Her parents said “if you want any help from us, we aren’t paying for a theatre major.l

    So now she is an education major and is minoring in theatre. Education isn’t going to pay out in the same way a computer engineering degree might, but it is a better option than theatre when it comes time to pay the loans.

    I think minors are a great way for college students to explore what they love but still get a degree in something that will pay the bills.

    My younger son is an outstanding sax player but wants to become a structural engineer. His plan is to minor in music performance with an engineering major. He wants to play professionally (and he realizes the vast majority of professional musicians have a primary job and the musician part is because they love playing).

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  20. john personna says:

    @Just Me:

    That all sounds pretty good. I worry though that the schools happily turn out more education majors than there are openings. Perhaps colleges should have some restraint there.

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  21. Ben says:

    @john personna:

    (On diversity of fields, I took Accounting, Engineering, and Nursing to be quite different.)

    I really don’t think they are all that different. Two of my best friends are nurses, and their job is essentially a hands-on application of biology, anatomy and chemistry. I consider it very close to STEM. And accounting is almost entirely mathematics, though not of the more abstract variety studied by most Math majors.

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  22. john personna says:

    @Ben:

    Shrug. My nephew is an accounting minor. He doesn’t like the STEM.

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  23. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Ben: I kind of have to disagree. I mentioned above that my first career was in insurance, off of a BA in English. My second career, based off of a Masters in Accounting, is as a CPA, and an Accounting instructor.

    People think of accountants as people who are good at math, but the reality is that I can teach the basics of Accounting to anyone who a) likes figuring out systems and patterns, b) can grasp the business cycle – even something as simple as a retail store or pizza parlor, and c) can figure out how to solve for A + B – C = D, given values for three of the variables.

    Accounting is much more about attention to detail and the ability to think through ways to represent an economic transaction within the parameters of the system than it is about math. 98% of accounting can be done with an understanding of the most basic algebra and a five-function simple calculator.

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  24. wr says:

    @superdestroyer: “However, if one would be advising a sharp student from a blue collar family, would you really want to tell them to take a shot against long odds to work in the movies or television or would you tell them to major in computer or petroleum engineering where they can make six figures and where most of the people working the field make that kind of money. ”

    I’d tell this sharp student to follow his or her passion — with an understanding of the risks each path holds.

    Very few people lie on their deathbeds thinking “Dang, I wish I’d been a petroleum engineer.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  25. wr says:

    @john personna: My father did what you suggest. When he went to college, he was enrolled as a pre-med. Halfway through his second year, his advisor called him in for a meeting and said that if he continued to take and fail science classes, he’d be expelled… but hadn’t he noticed that he got stellar grades in his English classes?

    So he switched to this unprofitable major (after dragging his mother’s head out of the oven). And he excelled. Got into Harvard for grad school. Excelled there. Got his doctorate and immediately landed a job at Berkeley, helping transform it into the legendary department it became. He was a brilliant scholar — and was loved not only by his grad students, but by undergrads, whom he loved to teach. It was the perfect life for him

    But if he’d done it your way, and if he’d found a way to succeed, he would have spent his life being miserable doing a job that someone else thought was for him.

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  26. wr says:

    @john personna: “My position is that they should exist, but not at all schools. The error was not thinking that people should study social sciences, humanities or fine arts but that cranking them out at low ranking schools was a good idea.”

    Yes, let us reserve the study of the things that define Western civilization for the rich who can get into the Ivies. Poor and middle class kids should be put on the treadmill as quickly as possible so that they can spend their lives servicing the elect.

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  27. wr says:

    @Just Me: “Education isn’t going to pay out in the same way a computer engineering degree might, but it is a better option than theatre when it comes time to pay the loans.”

    So now we’re sending our kids to college just to be able to get a job that will allow them to pay off the loans they took to go to college?

    Doesn’t it strike you that there’s something wrong with this system?

    Maybe we should go back to funding public education and letting our students learn, instead of training them to be drones.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  28. Just Me says:

    Not sure that choosing a college degree based on the ability to pay back the loans is turning them into drones.

    I also don’t think the only college majors to choose are located in the STEM degrees (although three of my four kids find themselves in or interested in STEM).

    I know a young lady who is majoring in languages (she is learning Chinese and already know French fluently) with a double major in something sort of in the area of political science but not that. Her dream is to work for the state department. Not sure how easy it is to get that kind of job but I figure if she learns Chinese fluently on top of knowing the French she can likely find a job that will pay the bills.

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  29. JKB says:

    @wr: Maybe we should go back to funding public education and letting our students learn, instead of training them to be drones.

    But what if their passion is to move to LA and be an actress? Shouldn’t we fund that passion too?

    How about this, just prior to graduation, we give the student a “body of knowledge” exam. If they pass, we, the taxpayer, pick up half the cost of the first 4 years of college? Then we’ll be funding education and making sure our students learn.

    Drone – One who lives on the labors of others.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever been in debt. But when you have a large debt looming over your life you are a drone. Even if you love your job, you still have little freedom or flexibility. You go to work, pay your debt.

    If you don’t have debt, and have a job you don’t like, then you can make a change.

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  30. wr says:

    @JKB: I’m not sure why this concept is so hard for you and JP to grasp:

    I’m saying that we should return to funding public higher education so that students don’t graduate with huge debts. Because it won’t cost them tens of thousands of dollars to get that education.

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  31. john personna says:

    @wr:

    You just violated my argument several ways to Sunday, and then pretended that it was still my argument.

    Principally, you went back to “your dad” and when degrees were rare.

    Secondly, you went to a high value school, Harvard, where signalling is maximized.

    You even emphasized this false argument as “my way.”

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  32. john personna says:

    @wr:

    You are making an absurdist argument that the very recent change to “college for everyone” was a necessary precursor to “Western Civilization.”

    Of course not, “college for everyone” is a post-1970s phenomena, and probably a wrong-turn.

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  33. john personna says:

    @wr:

    Do you know how far funding has actually fallen? Per the graph I shared a couple days ago, per-capita funding of higher education in the US has been in a $7K-$8K band for 25 years. We have slipped a bit to about $6.2K, and I’d be fine about moving it back.

    The thing you don’t get though is that funding at $7K-$8K is not going to fix tuitions that have tripled.

    If funding fell by approximately 20 percent, it cannot explain a 300 percent rise in fees.

    Something else happened – the education cost disease.

    [not to mention that you are perfectly happy graduating the unemployed, and think "my job is done."]

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  34. john personna says:

    wr really just argues his prejudices without data. Here is some data, read it carefully:

    State Budgeters’ View of Higher Ed

    That from “Inside Higher Ed.”

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  35. wr says:

    @john personna: “[not to mention that you are perfectly happy graduating the unemployed, and think "my job is done."] ”

    It’s a university, not a hiring gall. You go there to get educated.

    So yes, I’m happy graduating the unemployed. Then they go out and find jobs.

    And yes I know, the job market is terrible right now. But to pretend this isn’t two different conversations is just silly.

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  36. john personna says:

    @wr:

    I think my actual position is very moderate: I recognize a huge role for public education. I certainly endorse free and universal K-12. I would even like to see cheap or free university as an option. I just know that cheap or free university “for all” would (a) cost far more than most understand, and (b) pushing the last, poorest performing, high school students to college is not going to be the unabashed good that you think it is.

    When we are breaking 70% of high school graduates going to college, we are talking about taking students at the 30% performance level, and asking them to complete a four year college education. These are high schools C and D students. Many now are breaking upon the rocks, and dropping out with high debt, because they should not have been there in the first place.

    What is your solution for those “non-academic” students? Do you further dilute the worth of a 4 year degree, so that they can get through? And then do you pretend that you accomplished something good, and that jobs are someone else’s problem?

    I don’t think so.

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  37. john personna says:

    As an aside “the STEMs” are creating a vibrant non-academic community, which is free and open:

    Why Maker Faire may be Silicon Valley’s most important export

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  38. Grewgills says:

    I am curious about the first graph, 62% of graduates working in jobs that require a college degree. Of the 38% working in jobs that don’t require a college degree, how many are in jobs that require degree or experience and how many got the job they did in part due to that degree.

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  39. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I would like to see us go back to the dual college prep / technical high school tracks that many states have abandoned. It is far preferable to have someone who isn’t interested in college come out of high school with journeyman status or their initial professional license or technical certification than it is to have them graduate (*if* they graduate) into the world of WalMart / McDonald’s drone.

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  40. john personna says:

    @Grewgills:

    The stories I’ve heard are that things like shop sales positions, which never had a degree requirement, now face hundreds of resumes, many degreed, for an open position. In that environment, the shop keeper may use the degree as an easy “filter.”

    What we don’t want to do is think that the shop is now “benefiting” from higher human capital, instead the “signalling” has perversely slipped down the jobs curve.

    My claim is supported by this study:

    “Only Advanced-Degree Holders See Wage Gains”

    Remember that the “wage multiplier” is a relative comparison, between education levels. This other study shows absolute change in returns for education attainment over time.

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  41. john personna says:

    Robert J. Samuelson argues my position, here.

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  42. Grewgills says:

    @john personna:
    Prior to my graduate degree I actually had the filter work in the opposite direction for one of the more fun jobs I have had (naturalist and snorkel guide on a tourist boat). They tossed my resume out as over qualified until I came back and argued my case. That seems to be the rare case though. From the people I know that are responsible for hiring even for jobs that don’t require a college education, they tend to look favorably on a degree and do filter the applications that way unless the prospective employee has impressive experience that makes them stand out.

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  43. Kari Q says:

    @wr:

    I dunno. I sometimes think “Maybe I should have become a mechanical engineer after all.” Then I snap out of it.

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  44. Rob in CT says:

    Step 1: define, if you will, “related to your major.”

    Is my job related to my major? I have a History degree. I work for an insurance company, in claims.

    The gut response has to be no, right?

    But wait. I inhabit a niche. Most of the claims I see are the result of things that happened over time – often starting decades ago. In one instance, the mess began in 1859.

    My job involves figuring out what happened (as best I can – often things are unclear), building a narrative, determining how that interacts with insurance policies & applicable law, and communicating that to others.

    What does a Historian do again? Everything but the insurance policy/law part.

    See where I’m going here?

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