Graduated? Unemployed? Occupying Wall Street? Maybe you shouldn’t have majored in something useless…

Graduated? Unemployed? Occupying Wall Street? Maybe you shouldn’t have majored in something useless…

Why do so many Occupiers have college degrees? A college degree is supposed to get us a job, not land us in a protest begging for one, right?

Alex Tabarrok, in his e-book Launching the Innovation Renaissance says a lot of college students are making poor decisions in the education investment they make. Consider the following:

Educated people have higher wages and lower unemployment rates than the less educated so why are college students at Occupy Wall Street protests around the country demanding forgiveness for crushing student debt? The sluggish economy is tough on everyone but the students are also learning a hard lesson, going to college is not enough. You also have to study the right subjects. And American students are not studying the fields with the greatest economic potential.

Over the past 25 years the total number of students in college has increased by about 50 percent. But the number of students graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM fields) has remained more or less constant. Moreover, many of today’s STEM graduates are foreign born and are taking their knowledge and skills back to their native countries.

Consider computer technology. In 2009 the U.S. graduated 37,994 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science. This is not bad, but we graduated more students with computer science degrees 25 years ago! The story is the same in other technology fields such as chemical engineering, math and statistics. Few fields have changed as much in recent years as microbiology, but in 2009 we graduated just 2,480 students with bachelor’s degrees in microbiology — about the same number as 25 years ago. Who will solve the problem of antibiotic resistance?

If students aren’t studying science, technology, engineering and math, what are they studying?

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual and performing arts graduates in 1985.

The chart at right shows the number of bachelor’s degrees in various fields today and 25 years ago. STEM fields are flat (declining for natives) while the visual and performing arts, psychology, and communication and journalism (!) are way up.

There is nothing wrong with the arts, psychology and journalism, but graduates in these fields have lower wages and are less likely to find work in their fields than graduates in science and math. Moreover, more than half of all humanities graduates end up in jobs that don’t require college degrees and these graduates don’t get a big college bonus.

Most importantly, graduates in the arts, psychology and journalism are less likely to create the kinds of innovations that drive economic growth. Economic growth is not a magic totem to which all else must bow, but it is one of the main reasons we subsidize higher education.

The potential wage gains for college graduates go to the graduates — that’s reason enough for students to pursue a college education. We add subsidies to the mix, however, because we believe that education has positive spillover benefits that flow to society. One of the biggest of these benefits is the increase in innovation that highly educated workers theoretically bring to the economy.

As a result, an argument can be made for subsidizing students in fields with potentially large spillovers, such as microbiology, chemical engineering, nuclear physics and computer science. There is little justification for subsidizing sociology, dance and English majors.

College has been oversold. It has been oversold to students who end up dropping out or graduating with degrees that don’t help them very much in the job market. It also has been oversold to the taxpayers, who foot the bill for these subsidies.

So, if you’re an Occupier with a degree in dance or puppetry or underwater basket-weaving, ask yourself, “did I really thinkthis was going to get me a job?”. The answer might give you a good idea why your sitting in a park instead of going to work.



7 responses to “Graduated? Unemployed? Occupying Wall Street? Maybe you shouldn’t have majored in something useless…

  1. coffeeshoprhino

    Please add a title.

  2. coffeeshoprhino

    Can you show that “many Occupiers” have degrees? Where is your proof here?

  3. “Students at more than 100 colleges across the country rallied Thursday to show solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Demonstrators, both on and off campus, are voicing increasing frustration with the high cost of college, mounting student debt loads and the lousy job market for recent graduates.”
    -NPR, Oct. 14 2011, “College Students Join Occupy Wall Street Protests” by Claudio Sanchez

  4. You seem to be assuming that the majority of these occupiers have non-science degrees, but that isn’t necessarily true. Whether employed or unemployed, science-sector degree or the most liberal of the liberal arts it seems college students across the country are dissatisfied with the growing inequity between the top one-percent and the rest of us. The Huffington Post reported that over 70 campuses have participated in shows of solidarity with the OWS movement. Such demonstrations have focused on college-specific issues related to the movement which are not limited merely to lack of post-degree employment, but include issues such as high tuition costs and increasing debt levels which affect science and non-science majors alike. Yes, non-science majors are faced with more difficulty in today’s job market, but that doesn’t mean the college portion of OWS is made up merely of angry liberal and performing arts majors–there’s still a sizable gap in the salaries of wall-street investors and the starting salaries of most microbiologists.

  5. I agree with you that life is tough all around, whether or not you’re a science major. But I do think unemployment is a big issue, and when you consider that we’ve graduated double the number of visual and performing arts majors while in general humanities majors are the second-least-employed, second-lowest salary graduates, it seems like people haven’t been investing wisely–just like a housing bubble. I am not saying everyone should be a STEM major, I just think people should really evaluate their expected return on college and adjust according to changing costs. Of course, the experience of going to college is a consumption good as well as an investment in education, and that must be taken into account. Nonetheless, if college isn’t worth it, why go? Certainly some of the 22% of college graduates working in jobs that do not require college degrees are wishing they had their tuition check back. (source for all this:

    And in response to the last part of your comment, I guess I’m not saying OWS is all liberal and performing arts majors, I’m just saying that those majors are one of the largest groups of unemployed college graduates. Also, I think it is dubious to compare the starting salary of a college graduate to that of a “wall-street investor” without specifying their experience. I would be very curious to find out if there was in fact a large difference between the starting salary of the average STEM major and that of the average entry-level financial analyst or trader on wall street.

  6. Pingback: More on Students Whining » Musings of the Technical Bard

  7. I am a Microbiology graduate. I have been jobless for over a year now and currently looking for jobs outside of America (since i couldn’t find anything back home) and still no luck. To your question who will be looking for antibiotic resistance in the future?… well it ain’t me that’s for sure. I feel my university diploma has become a high priced piece of toilet paper.

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