Until student debt started to become a major burden on American college students, talking about whether some majors were more worthy of investment than others seemed to matter less. But thanks to abysmal post-graduation employment numbers and a recent hike in federal student loan rates, the discussion over the relative value of degrees is heating up. A growing number of researchers are looking at data to determine which majors provide a good return on investment — and so far the answers appear entirely unsurprising.
Just as the public has long suspected, students who earn degrees in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — have better employment prospects and earn higher salaries than those who earn degrees in humanities and social science disciplines.
According to Timothy J. Gonzalez of the Associated Press, however, the issue is more complex than it seems on the surface. As Di Saunders, the director of communications for Oregon State University, explains, it's hard to compare computer science majors and social work majors head to head because those who go into social work might be looking for rewards from their jobs that are more than just financial. Furthermore, driving people into programs with high earning potential might create shortages in professions that are just as vital for the country's future economic health.
It's true that not all degrees are made equal, according to a study published by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute in May. The report analyzed unemployment rates and earnings among various college degrees. The report found that architecture and information systems students faced unemployment rates as high as 12 or 14 percent, in addition to high rates for students majoring in film, photography and anthropology. Students in the arts also faced lower starting salaries — a student who majored in fine arts, for example, had an average salary of $29,000 fresh out of college. On the other hand, students majoring in nursing, chemistry and finance all faced very low unemployment rates. And for fields like engineering, computers and mathematics, unemployment rates were average but starting salaries were more generous, sometimes $55,000 for a recent graduate.
A study conducted by Oregon's Employment Department drew similar conclusions. While employment rates for college students more or less followed national trends, starting salaries for graduates in nursing, computer science and engineering were much higher than for those who earned degrees in the arts, architecture and communications.
Still, so far, these considerations haven't swayed a large number of students. In Oregon, the number of graduates in social sciences and humanities or fine arts was nearly 6 times higher than those in engineering and computer science.
Part of the reason for the gap could be the fact that STEM majors tend to be more difficult, require more work and generally result in lower GPAs at graduation.
At the University of Oregon, the emphasis isn't so much on one major over another, said interim provost Scott Coltrane. Instead, the university embraces a philosophy that a liberal arts education can prepare students for any number of potential jobs.
"The tenants of a basic liberal education is to prepare people to assume jobs that we don't know exist yet," he said. "Some of the most popular jobs, that have highest demand, are jobs that didn't exist ten years ago. We have to teach students to question and work together and solve problems, and that's what will prepare them for the job market that evolves on its own."