Arnold Kling  

Plight of the Unskilled College Grad, Con't

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Following up on a suggestion by Fabio Rojas, I went to this page and selected the study that looked at college graduates from 1999-2000 and interviewed them in 2001. I just did a simple table of annual job income by college major.

Majoraverage income25th percentilenot in grad school
25th percentile
Social Science23361984018000
Life Science20120017500
Physical Science250031500022000
Computer Science430282980030000
Education 251842000021000
other tech-prof270081560020000

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.

At the 25th percentile, the really bad majors are life sciences (again, what are these, and why do they do so poorly?), humanities, and social sciences. Perhaps the 25th percentile of these three groups is what defines the unskilled college graduate. Note how much better vocational-technical looks at the 25th percentile.

[UPDATE: I re-ran the numbers, taking out of the sample anyone who was enrolled either part-time or full-time in a post-graduate program. See the far right-hand column of the table. The unskilled grads are not such extreme outliers if you do this, but they still are not doing very well.]

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
William Barghest writes:

Is it possible that a significant percentage of life science and physical science majors are in medical school or graduate school one to two year after graduation.

SB7 writes:

I was going to suggest the same thing at Barghest. Did this data control for that?

John Jenkins writes:

In both the physical sciences and life sciences, it is difficult to get a job without at least an M.S. degree (several of the people whom I graduated with were in that bucket), so those folks would almost have to be in some form of graduate school or underemployed (like my friend with the Marine Biology degree whose job is in the water department for a municipality testing the water for microorganisms).

Sara writes:

As a chemistry/biochemistry major I can attest that most of my co-majors were pre-meds and in medical school a couple years out of college. A significant minority wanted to be actual research scientists and thus were in PhD programs a couple years out of college. Most undergraduate training in life and physical sciences is focused on teaching what is already known. To be a practicing scientist a person really needs to learn more about how to design, perform, and analyze experiments, and that mostly comes in graduate school.

On a side note, I'd be interested to know how many of those well-paid engineers were actually doing any engineering. I found that engineering majors were in high demand by investment banks and consulting firms. I guess they know who has the smarts.

cvd writes:

Looking only one or two years out doesn't work.

Engineering salaries start high (I started out as an Electrical Engineer) but there's much less upside for an engineer than for a business major. I switched to government (financial regulation) because it has a higher upside that many engineering jobs.

DB writes:

One thing that I am very curious about is the percentage of college grads from each major that are getting hired in their specific field of study. Some professions can be expected to make more than others simply based on what they do and the demand for that service in todays market, which is very technology driven. It would also be interesting to see how these numbers are different for graduate students in the same majors, to see if there is a significant difference is average income, and if the case can be made that the returns from going to undergrad and then graduate school are substantially greater than the returns from getting an undergraduate degree alone.

SydB writes:

I tend to agree with CVD above and would also point out that engineering and computer science in 2000 were very much in demand. In addition, I think this chart does not take into account the older higher paid engineers who are put out to pasture through layoffs because their skills and energy levels (e.g. willing to work through the night) are no longer comparable to those fresh out of school.

Marcus writes:

I'd point out that at the time of the study we were at the tail end of the tech-stock boom which had a big impact on the salaries of programmers and engineers.

It would be interesting to see a more recent study.

Fabio Rojas writes:

Re life sciences: biology has low barriers to entry and promise of pre-med. Those who make it into the medical track are small, so it creates a huge pool of people who work as biology teachers, health policy grunts, and lab rats - all of which are low paying jobs.

Also, beware in looking at the money/major correlation. Many hard majors produce teachers (e.g., math), who have low wages even though they have marketable skills.

So you need to have some theory of career paths to really figure out the income/major relationship and what it means.

Loof writes:

What’s the dropout and burnout rate for other professions? 50% of new teachers leave within 5yrs. And, it makes sense for the smarter, better-qualified teachers to leave first, when easier to get a job elsewhere.

CC writes:

About life sciences majors, you should be aware that a bachelor's degree in biology doesn't get you very far, maybe a biology teacher or lab technician position making $30,000. To get a job that pays decently you need a Ph.D. or M.D. According to this site

there are about 50,000 biology majors graduating every year. Therefore, the bottom quartile is about 12,500 people. This is about the number of people entering medical school every year, or graduate students in unfunded programs. I graduated from college 11 years ago and as an M.D./Ph.D. student my yearly wage is $29,000.

Frank writes:

I sincerely don't know where this (mis) information regarding physical scientists comes from. Chemists make up the bulk of physical scientists. The American Chemical Society maintains a database on starting and median salaries of BS, MS, and PhD chemists. From their March 1, 2007 survey starting BS chemists average $45,000 in industry. After 30 years expect to earn $90,000. Starting PhD's average $80,00 up to $127,000 after 25 years. Remember that grad school is an all expenses paid with a annual stipend of $16-25K. No student loan debt!

I have these numbers handy as I must advise students on careers and on salary negotiations.

Will writes:

Life sciences and physical science jobs generally require Masters and above (as other posters have commented) to get a decent salary. Lab tech work simply doesn't pay well and neither does entry level field work.

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

The reason is something libertarians don't understand or hate to admit -- externalities (amongst other pure free market failures). It's impossible, or extremely impractical and costly, to patent or otherwise charge for the vast majority of the great value they create. Thus, the libertarian pure free market will ridiculously under pay for it and under provide it. And efficiency and total societal utils can be massively increased by the government taxing and spending on it greatly. the same is true for your other puzzlement, "physical sciences (again, why so low?)"

Martin writes:

"On a side note, I'd be interested to know how many of those well-paid engineers were actually doing any engineering. I found that engineering majors were in high demand by investment banks and consulting firms. I guess they know who has the smarts."

Most of them would be, actually. Yeah, a number do go off into other brain trust kinds of jobs, but a good rule of thumb is that the only people working as engineers have engineering degrees. There's very little cross-over from other disciplines into engineering.

Further, you can do very well without a graduate degree, at least for a while. Starting salary for BS engineers in our higher cost market is in the 40s and 50s with the best students in the low 60s. MS gets you into the 80s. PhD runs around 100K. University salaries run about 35% below market averages, which makes it quite difficult to attract young PhDs into teaching.

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