College Educated and Unskilled

Economist Arnold Kling points to some federal earning statistics of people who graduated college ten years ago and  concludes that we’re graduating far too many people with essentially worthless degrees:

Major average income 25th percentile not in grad school
25th percentile
Humanities 23791 11900 15600
Social Science 23361 9840 18000
Life Science 20120 0 17500
Physical Science 25003 15000 22000
Math 31063 20000 23000
Computer Science 43028 29800 30000
Engineering 40683 31000 35000
Education 25184 20000 21000
Business 35346 25000 27000
Health 31331 18000 25000
Voc-tech 30682 23000 23700
other tech-prof 27008 15600 20000
overall 28478 15840 21000

The main calculations are for all graduates; the last box subtracts those who are currently enrolled in graduate coursework and thus intentionally not working full-time.

Says Kling,

Pulling up the average are computer science, engineering, business, health, math, and vocational-technical. Pulling down the average are life sciences (why is this so low?), social sciences, humanities, physical sciences (again, why so low?), education, and “other technical/professional.”

If the ultimate question is whether more students should attend and graduate from college, then perhaps what should interest me is something like the income of the lowest 25th percentile within each major. That might give a better idea of what we might expect to see at the margin if more students graduated college in the various majors.

In a follow-up post, looking at similar data from those who graduated in 1993, Kling adds:

My view of all this is that it confirms my point that “college graduate” is not a homogeneous category. The economic effect of increasing the number of college graduates is going to vary, depending on whether you graduate more engineers or more humanities majors.

Brian Moore adds:

While I always advocate doing what you enjoy, the table above shows that a huge percentage of graduates in the social sciences and liberal arts are not going to be making enough money to support themselves or a family.

If a college education were costless, it would only be a harmless lie that we tell kids.  As it is, it usually costs 4 years and tens of thousands of dollars, (which need to be repaid in most cases!) in addition to psychologically placing many jobs out of one’s purview, which makes this is a pretty sickening betrayal.

I’m a bit perplexed by all this.  I’ve long thought that we send far, far too many people to college who simply have no business being there, either because they’re intellectually unsuited or emotionally or psychologically unready.  (Many who matriculate right out of high school would benefit from a few years in the work force and some time to grow up.)

And, yes, it’s true that many people go to college motivated primarily by the prospect of increased earnings down the road.

But it’s not exactly a state secret that engineering and the hard sciences are more likely to lead to financial success than a liberal arts degree.  Indeed, variations of  “What are you going to do with that?” are common jokes on campus.   Presumably, though, people who study sociology rather than nuclear physics do so because they are actually very interested in sociology and willing to risk lower financial rewards for greater psychic rewards or they lack the aptitude for advanced mathematics.

In my case, it was a combination of the two.   I went to college planning on majoring in electrical engineering, discovered that I was very interested in studying political science and was exceedingly good at it while, alas, being at the 85th percentile in mathematics aptitude made me pretty mediocre at advanced calculus and abstract formulas.  So, I took a bet on throwing myself into something I enjoyed and was good at rather than trying to squeak by in something where I’d never excel and likely wouldn’t enjoy.

My thought was to go on to law school but I had the epiphany somewhere in my junior year that, while I was very interested in studying the law, I had little interest in practicing it.  Essentially, the jobs lawyers did that I wanted were: Supreme Court justice and prosecutor.  And, since the former was unlikely and the latter is a financial dead end and might get you shot at, I decided to go another route:  The Army and then grad school.

Let’s just say that I’ve exceeded the $23,361 mean income for social science majors.  Hell, I was making a little more than that when I went on active duty right out of college 22 years ago — a lot more, in fact, if you adjust it to 2010 dollars.

Here’s the thing:  It ain’t your college’s fault if you graduate and can’t make it out in the real world.   Their job is to provide an education and give you certain skill sets.  If you’re in a vocational major — accounting, say, or even engineering — then you should be able to get your foot in the door in an entry level job in that field and be equipped to learn the ropes.  If you’re in a liberal arts major, you should be equipped to communicate in writing and be equipped to learn the skills you need on the job.   But it’s up to you to make it happen.

UPDATE: John Robb has some vaguely related and more depressing thoughts.

UPDATE II: Brian Moore responds in the comments and observes that “giving you a reasonable estimation of . . . how much of what you learned in your major you actually use in the average job would be considered at least a necessary part of your education.”

Here’s the thing, though:  Outside of a few vo-tech majors, college does not exist to prepare you for any particular job.

I taught political science.  Aside from getting students ready for law school or graduate school by making them display analytical and writing skills, I was thoroughly unequipped to teach them job skills other than, perhaps, the value of showing up and working hard.  For one thing, I had no idea what jobs my students would take coming out of school.  For another, I’d almost certainly never held that job.

Companies hiring polisci grads shouldn’t expect them to know anything related to a particular job, unless they’re doing political science in that job.  Instead, they should expect that they’ve got bright, educated adults capable of learning the job.  But it’s up to the employer, not the university, to teach how to do the job for which they’re hired.

Over time, of course, one’s college education lapses into the distance and one’s work experience predominates.  For those later jobs, it’s reasonable to expect skills based on the resume.  But, again, their value to employees will be based on what they’ve learned in the work world, not what they learned in Dr. Joyner’s classes.  The only value I hope or expect to provide future employers of my students is some knowledge of how the political world works and the ability to learn, think, and write.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Education, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Alex Knapp says:

    This is a useless set of numbers because it’s missing some important data. How many of each group have been working for 10 years, and how many have pursued a postgraduate education? Seems like that would be useful to know–but it’s not there.

    How many of each group are working in the private sector vs. the public sector vs. academia vs. the non-profit sector? Again, that would be useful information, but again, we don’t know.

    Absent the data above (and probably more besides), it’s difficult to judge the economic worth of the various degrees. (Of course, it’s also incredibly self-limiting and narrow-minded to only look at the economic worth of knowledge, but that’s a rant for another time.)

  2. James Joyner says:

    Agreed all around.

  3. Kenny says:

    Apropos of nothing, this was classic:

    “And, since the former was unlikely and the latter is a financial dead end and might get you shot at, I decided to go another route: The Army …”

  4. James Joyner says:

    Well, if you’re going to join an occupation where you might get shot, you might as well do it right.

  5. Brett says:

    Presumably, though, people who study sociology rather than nuclear physics do so because they are actually very interested in sociology and willing to risk lower financial rewards for greater psychic rewards or they lack the aptitude for advanced mathematics.

    That’s certainly an optimistic way of looking at it. While many such people (including myself, unfortunately) do find some of the subject matter interesting, it’s often not that we are “willing to risk lower financial rewards”, at least consciously. Rather, it’s a combination of “have to finish school” (otherwise all those loans are for nothing), the promise of some financial reward for just having a degree (even if you go on to be an office monkey), and fatalistic inertia (basically “well, I’m stuck with the worthless degree, but it would be two more years of schooling and more debt to change it, so what the hell?”).

    And, since the former was unlikely and the latter is a financial dead end and might get you shot at, I decided to go another route: The Army and then grad school.

    That’s definitely a possibility, particularly if you’re in reasonably decent shape. I have a couple of buddies who did the ROTC experience while in college, and I considered it myself when I started going to college.

    If you’re in a liberal arts major, you should be equipped to communicate in writing and be equipped to learn the skills you need on the job.

    Heh. That reminds of me what the admissions officer at UVa told my uncle when I visited there. The guy more or less said that if you weren’t going into the sciences, engineering, or economics/business, the value in your degree amounted to basically how well you learned to write while achieving it.

    It’s convenient for the colleges, of course – they can spam out some liberal arts courses that allow them to soak money out of a larger body of students who would have never gone to school before the “everybody goes to college” paradigm.

  6. Brian Moore says:

    “If you’re in a liberal arts major, you should be equipped to communicate in writing and be equipped to learn the skills you need on the job. But it’s up to you to make it happen.”

    Sure, but I think giving you a reasonable estimation of things like a) expected income vs. your student loans, b) likelihood of finding a job in your field and c) how much of what you learned in your major you actually use in the average job would be considered at least a necessary part of your education.

    “(Of course, it’s also incredibly self-limiting and narrow-minded to only look at the economic worth of knowledge, but that’s a rant for another time.)”

    There’s a lot of things in life that you can study and enjoy without paying a large amount of money and time to study in college. If you’re truly just learning for the sake of learning, perhaps you should examine lower cost alternatives to the potentially tens of thousands in student debt you could accrue at some 4 year institutions. Which, I think, is why we are seeing a boom in for-profit universities and community college enrollments, as traditional university tuitions skyrocket.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Sure, but I think giving you a reasonable estimation of things like a) expected income vs. your student loans, b) likelihood of finding a job in your field and c) how much of what you learned in your major you actually use in the average job would be considered at least a necessary part of your education.

    I don’t advocate going into debt to finance a college education, with the exception of perhaps medical school or something obviously lucrative.

  8. kth says:

    In the business category, they should break accounting out from the other majors, which are no more rigorous than majors in English or political science or whatever. But a business school education immerses you in the value system of free enterprise, and signals to potential employers that you have internalized those values. In short, the main value of a non-accounting business degree over one in the humanities is likely primarily ideological.

  9. Brian Moore says:

    I don’t advocate going into debt to finance a college education, with the exception of perhaps medical school or something obviously lucrative.

    Definitely agree here. Even for some medical specialties, your potential earnings are pretty low compared to what you might have to spend at a prestigious medical school.

  10. anjin-san says:

    In today’s educational environment, its less about education, and more education as a business, with students as customers, and diplomas as a product. Schools are in the business of producing graduates. Preparing them to compete and do quality work is less of an issue than it once was.

    My dad was borderline rocket scientist smart, and he said that law school in the 50’s was no picnic, he had to really apply himself to excel. Today I know guys who aren’t bright enough to be decent waiters who go to law school, graduate and pass the bar. God help their clients.

  11. Triumph says:

    in studying political science and was exceedingly good at it while, alas, being at the 85th percentile in mathematics aptitude made me pretty mediocre at advanced calculus and abstract formulas

    I’m not sure where you studied political science, but being proficient at advanced calculus and abstract formulas is basically a prerequisite to get a PhD. Take a look at any leading journal in the field. The entire discipline explains its findings based on methods derived from the basics of differential calculus.

  12. James Joyner says:

    being proficient at advanced calculus and abstract formulas is basically a prerequisite to get a PhD.

    Not hardly.

    Take a look at any leading journal in the field. The entire discipline explains its findings based on methods derived from the basics of differential calculus.

    A different thing entirely. The discipline has changed radically since I finished grad school, as the Internet and more advanced versions of Windows mean that statistical manipulations that required mainframe time in 1993 can now be done from the comfort of one’s office. But the software does the statistical analysis, all the political scientist needs to know is what stats to use and how to read the results.

    I use all sorts of incredibly advanced technology every day. It doesn’t mean I understand the science behind the technology, or even the coding that makes the software operate.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    The discipline has changed radically since I finished grad school, as the Internet and more advanced versions of Windows mean that statistical manipulations that required mainframe time in 1993 can now be done from the comfort of one’s office. But the software does the statistical analysis, all the political scientist needs to know is what stats to use and how to read the results.

    Forty years ago when I was in grad school one of the ways I made a little extra money was by tutoring social sciences grad students in using the statistical packages that were available then. I was appalled at how poorly they understood the principles underpinning the tools they were using.

    Judging by your observation, James, it appears that things haven’t changed.

  14. James Joyner says:

    Judging by your observation, James, it appears that things haven’t changed.

    Oh, I imagine they’ve gotten much worse. The statistical tools available have gotten much, much more powerful. Your average math major probably doesn’t understand the equations involved. At best, most social scientists understand what the formulas they’re using are supposed to do. Not the math behind them, much less the mathematical theory behind it. Just, “this isolates the effects of the independent variables on the dependent variables and controls for various other variables.”

    There are, of course, political scientists who are math whizzes. John Oneal, who taught most of my stats-based courses at Alabama, was one of them. But most of us just learned the basics.

  15. In the business category, they should break accounting out from the other majors, which are no more rigorous than majors in English or political science or whatever

    Finance and actuarial science are pretty rigorous too.

  16. Triumph says:

    all the political scientist needs to know is what stats to use and how to read the results.

    Seriously, that is not the case at most places.

    Take, for instance, a random dept. like Rochester.

    Here is the core PhD curriculum:

    PSC 404, Probability and Inference
    PSC 405, Linear Models
    PSC 407, Mathematical Modeling
    PSC 408, Positive Political Theory
    PSC 480, Scope of Political Science

    This pretty typical stuff. When I was at Harvard, there was this guy, Gary King, who was way out there in super-math heaven. There is NO WAY you could do well in Prof. King’s classes without a serious solid math background.

  17. Janis Gore says:

    Ultimately, math is good for more math, unless you’re in the top sector.

    I called the guys down at the tire shop and asked if they could look at my tire at 8 am that morning. Yes, they could.

    I took the car in and was on my way before 8:30. It was a wicked looking screw for a tire.

    We can talk, and put up statistics until our breaths run out, but the tire will still go flat.

    I am a journalism major, in the end zone, and the lot of us are fairly worthless.

  18. Janis Gore says:

    “is fairly wotrhless” to be correct

  19. James Joyner says:

    This pretty typical stuff.

    That’s pretty atypical, especially at the undergrad level. Look at Harvard’s core requirements. Same stuff I was taken at Jax State in the mid-1980s. Survey courses in theory, comparative, American, and IR plus various electives in the major. Yale’s is even more elective-driven.

    There are no doubt some departments that have been taken over by the modeling types. But they’re few and far between.

    You’re right, though, that APSR and some of the other major journals have. But even most of the people getting published there aren’t math geeks in the sense that, say, your average physics major is.

  20. john personna says:

    Economist Arnold Kling points to some federal earning statistics of people who graduated college ten years ago and concludes that we’re graduating far too many people with essentially worthless degrees: […]

    You heard it here first.

    Alex:

    This is a useless set of numbers because it’s missing some important data. How many of each group have been working for 10 years, and how many have pursued a postgraduate education? Seems like that would be useful to know–but it’s not there.

    It matters if you are talking about subsidized education. Then you have to say (or should be able to say) what you are subsidizing. A state government looking to increase effective intellectual capital and business activity should be very interested in those numbers, and bang for the buck.

    Now, if you live in some state that just wants everyone to feel good, go for it. That is, if you think taxes can be higher.

    I think I see a chink in come conservative’s armor here, as they look for subsidies in the soft majors.

    Being a true conservative, I see this all through the subsidy filter. Go off, again, to that Ashram if you want to, but don’t give it a friggin’ Federally guaranteed loan.

  21. wr says:

    How far we’ve fallen from the Enlightenment ideal of an educated populace. I guess we now think that general knowledge is useless — especially if someone might have to give up one dollar in taxes somewhere along the line.

    I wonder what other elements of civilization the libertarians will happily throw overboard in their pursuit of the “free” — that is, untaxed — life.

    I’d rather live in a country where people have a general understanding of the world, of our culture, and of history, even if that knowledge doesn’t immediately translate into cash. And I’m willing to pay taxes to support public universities to further that.

    I guess around here that makes me a Fascist…

  22. anjin-san says:

    I guess around here that makes me a Fascist…

    And a damned Obammunist!

  23. just me says:

    How far we’ve fallen from the Enlightenment ideal of an educated populace. I guess we now think that general knowledge is useless — especially if someone might have to give up one dollar in taxes somewhere along the line.

    I don’t think college education is useless, I just think going into 80,000 dollars in debt to work for $10 an hour in retail isn’t a good idea.

    I also don’t see the point of pushing every high school graduate towards college.

  24. john personna says:

    How far we’ve fallen from the Enlightenment ideal of an educated populace. I guess we now think that general knowledge is useless — especially if someone might have to give up one dollar in taxes somewhere along the line.

    Really? You typed that on the internet, where you have public access to all those Enlightenment texts?

    Really!

    (Seriously, part of this is about how much you believe in life-long learning, and how much you think it is a university’s responsibility to fill an unwilling head in four years.)

  25. john personna says:

    (Another question might be about what it takes to instill skills, and desire, for life-long learning. I’d say teenagers have the google skills these days … how much longer do you need them in college? Does every class need to be a meatspace lecture to make that happen? Is four years as magic now as it was 100 years ago?)

  26. This strikes me ultimately as part of the training v. education debate and as to what the exact purpose of the university is.

  27. James Joyner says:

    This strikes me ultimately as part of the training v. education debate and as to what the exact purpose of the university is.

    Exactly. And I’m not sure what the answer is anymore. Or that there’s one answer.

    So many of the disciplines are purely vocational now that it’s hard to argue they exist for education rather than training. That’s true even for some rather rigorous programs like accounting or nursing.

    So, at best, you’ve got a dual-purpose institution with a large vo-tech element that also requires some core educational coursework and offers the option of majoring in an educational subject.

  28. In my experience, there would be a significant difference between the following pairs of classes:

    PSC 404, Probability and Inference
    MTH 404, Probability and Inference

    PSC 405, Linear Models
    MTH 405, Linear Models

    Not the least of which is that when I was a math major, they latter in each pair would have been:

    MTH 204, Probability and Inference
    MTH 205, Linear Models

    And, perhaps this isn’t fair, but the folks taking the PSC 404 and PSC 405 classes would probably have struggled with the MTH 204 and MTH 205 classes. I had some roommates during grad school who were taking the math classes offered for non-math majors and they were seriously simplified from what I took. A lot of focus on how to use the tools, but no theory and no proofs. I.e., no real mathematics, just more advanced arithmetic.

    The 400 level mathematics classes I took were hard for most mathematics majors. Strangly, I did better in them than in the 200 level mathematics classes. But I digress.

  29. James Joyner says:

    And, perhaps this isn’t fair, but the folks taking the PSC 404 and PSC 405 classes would probably have struggled with the MTH 204 and MTH 205 classes

    Sure. But, heck, math majors often struggle with the polisci classes. Their brains are wired differently. And most of them can’t express themselves coherently in written form that doesn’t involve equations.

    Ideally, education should include a solid grounding in the host language (English, in our case) and mathematics. They’re the two basic “languages” of learning.

    Mathematics, though, reaches a level of abstraction at a certain point that loses most of us. Maybe it’s just a function of needing better teachers. But, while I was quite good at arithmetic and at least decent at geometry and algebra, there came a point where it was just memorizing formulas. I simply didn’t understand what most of the things I was “learning” in second semester calculus were doing. I could follow the recipe but didn’t understand it.

  30. john personna says:

    I took a fair amount of math for my BS Chem. If I recall correctly the last course was Math 281 – Linear Algebra, which I hated. Looking back, it’s strange that I escaped without Statistics. That was probably an error in their requirements.

    But hey, I can learn it now. (I’ve actually read a half-dozen books since that meander around the subject.)

  31. john personna says:

    Recommended: Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

    WorldCat will help you find that in a library. It’s also a phone app, which makes things easier.

  32. Grewgills says:

    Pulling down the average are life sciences (why is this so low?)

    Because without an advanced degree there aren’t many good paying jobs and even with an advanced degree there is stiff competition for jobs with good pay.

    I’d say teenagers have the google skills these days

    My experience has been that most teenagers (and adults) don’t know how to put together a good search string.

  33. john personna says:

    My experience has been that most teenagers (and adults) don’t know how to put together a good search string.

    I was watching my nephew research his science project this week. He didn’t use the strings I would have, but he found what he was looking for. His patience to read what he found was another thing entirely.

    In the old days we’d write queries with explicit AND/OR and NOT. I think the classic example was “whales AND dolphins NOT football.” Now, I think we just put in the AND words, leave out the NOTs, an for most part google will deliver.

    It’s been ages since I’ve needed to flip to google’s advanced tab to add a NOT. Date and site filtering are useful though.

  34. James, my experience is that many liberal arts majors can’t express their thoughts coherently either. Our brains are wired differently, no doubt about that, but it goes beyond mere aptitude for certain subjects.

    The real fun in mathematics doesn’t start until after three semesters of calculus. That gives you the basic tools you need to start to do some of the other work. How about a constitutional amendment that Congress should have at least 10% practicing engineers, or at least people that can solve a simple partial differential equation? Ok that’s an oxymoron to most people, but you know what I mean. I keep hearing that science and technology are so important to our future, but how many scientists or technologists are there in Congress?