Don't Let the Economy Pick Your Major For You

Is college worth it? If I had to limit my answer to one word: yes. For every rung you climb on the education ladder -- from high school, to community college, to four-year university, to doctoral degree -- unemployment for your group goes down and wages go up, as illustrated in this BLS graph:

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But that's a 30,000-foot answer. Zoom in, and the complications come into focus. Many community colleges are drop-out factories. Are they all "worth it"?  Many schools offer simplistic curricula and their degree amounts to a meaningless, expensive stamp on four wasted years. Are those schools all worth it for every career? Even among the top 50 schools, middle class students often graduate with $20,000, $30,000, even $50,000 in debt. That won't always be a smart price to pay for someone who wants to be an actor, or writer, or construction person, or manufacturing worker, or even software engineer. Even if college protects earnings opportunities in these fields, are the early debt and forgone late-teen earnings worth it for each one of these workers?

That's an impossible question to answer. So the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce does the next best thing. It breaks down employment and earnings by college degree to make the point that not all college degrees are equal, and the major you take greatly influence the money you make. Here are the key graphs of unemployment rates and college earnings by degree, both for recent graduates.

UNEMPLOYMENT RATES BY DEGREE

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EARNINGS BY DEGREE

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Is this information useful? Absolutely. Investment require information. (See our piece: Do Colleges Need a Calorie Count?) Higher ed is a $100,000 investment, or much more. But many families and students make their choice based on low-grade data, like "the campus felt too sprawling" or "the dorm rooms were pretty." Education is experiential, and experiential information should come into play. But families would benefit from more data about real return on investment, like median debt upon graduation, and earnings and employment by degree. This survey is a worthy data point.

But are employment and earnings by degree the most important factors in choosing a college? Absolutely not. First of all, mushy as it sounds in an economics post, happiness matters. To the furthest extent possible, you should do what you want to do, not only in college, but also in life. Second, employment and earnings statistics are variable. Real estate was all the rage in 2003. But four years after the housing bust, it won't surprise you to learn that architecture majors now have highest jobless rate among recent college graduates at 14%, nearly three times higher than for Information Services Majors. Or poll business school grads from 2000 or 2008 how flooding into finance worked out. Stats are moving targets.

Does that mean you shouldn't major in architecture today? Once again: Absolutely not! If you want to design houses and commercial buildings, an architecture degree would be a nice thing to have. Who knows, maybe the economy will be at your back by the time you hit peak-earnings age. (Housing starts just hit an 18-month high, and in some states, there is arguably a shortage of homes.) College is an investment, and when you make an investment, you should consider all the data. But don't let the economy pick your major for you.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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