By Laura Fosmire
The numbers confirm what many graduates already know: Arts and humanities students face lower salaries and fewer jobs; math, science and computer majors anticipate meatier earnings and more plentiful jobs.
But the question of a major’s value is more complicated than just dollar amounts.
“We don’t say you should go into business or you should go into social work,” said Di Saunders, director of communications for the Oregon University System, or OUS. “One of our concerns is that we don’t want to say everybody should be going to certain fields because then we’ll have shortages in teaching, or criminal justice; fields that help make us the society we want to be.”
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 report from the state Employment Department found that in Oregon, unemployment rates by major tended to follow the national trends. Architecture and communications students faced high unemployment, while health-related fields, in addition to science and engineering, had much lower rates.
When it came to earnings, Oregon’s numbers painted a similar picture: Engineering, computers and science students had higher earnings than their counterparts in fine arts, literature and language.
But if the number of students in the state pursuing these majors is any indication, there are other draws aside from earnings. According to the OUS fact book, more than 3,300 students graduated last year with a degree in the social sciences, while another 2,500 graduated with a humanities or fine arts degree.
Only 950 students earned an engineering degree, while 270 students earned a computer science degree.
Saunders said that OUS does support a number of pre-university programs to expose more students to what’s been commonly referred to as STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But the programs don’t persuade students to choose one field over another.
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.”
Coltrane said he believes this approach is enough to prepare Oregon’s students for the marketplace and keep them competitive with other universities.
“The idea is to have a well-rounded scholar who also has technical skills, or is at least prepared to learn those skills,” he said. “I don’t think one is better than the other. It’s not all about the entry-level pay, it’s also doing work that will be meaningful and make good social change, and I think young people think about that almost as much as the starting salary.”