Was studying worth it? The university degrees with the highest (and lowest) unemployment rates

Written by Elizabeth Bromstein
Posted on July 18, 2013

Some folks have been questioning the value of a university degree lately. Particularly an undergrad. Does it really pay to get one? After all, if everyone has one, and they really do crank those things out, then what’s it worth?

Personally, I think that, in certain areas, we could be moving away from the everyone- must-go-to-university mindset and towards more individualized education models and apprenticeships. The current backlash against unpaid internships makes the latter a potentially unpopular idea, but a shift in the playing field might not necessarily be a bad move.

Georgetown University has, however, released a report suggesting that, for the time being, it still pays to earn a degree. “As we recovered from the recession during 2010 and 2011,” reads the report, “college graduates fared better than less educated workers.

Overall unemployment rates during this period were 9-10 percent for non-college graduates compared to 4.6 – 4.7 percent for college graduates 25 years of age or older.”

(Of course, the university degree might not be the only variable here and the report doesn’t really prove a causal relation. It is, naturally, in Georgetown University’s best interest to show that it pays to get a university degree. I’m not saying the claim is wrong. I’m just saying know your source).

The report also looks at the degrees with the highest and lowest unemployment rates. And some of the findings are surprising, at least to me. For example, I would have thought that majoring in information systems would be a good idea. I would have been wrong.

In the computers and mathematics areas, information systems had the highest unemployment rate at 14.7 %. Computer science majors fared better with 8.7% unemployment, while mathematics majors were sitting prettier at 5.9%. The outlook got better in these and in all areas with job experience and graduate degrees. As did earnings.

In the arts, the lowest unemployment was among those with degrees in drama and theatre arts, at 6.4%. Wait…what!? Yes. It’s true. Meanwhile, the highest unemployment was in the film, video, and photographic arts (11.4%) and, surprisingly (again, to me, anyway), commercial art and graphic design (10.5%). This was followed by fine arts (10.1%).

Among the social sciences, there were high unemployment rates in economics (10.4%), political science, government (11.1%), and sociology (9.9%). (It bears noting, however, that graduate degree holders in economics were among the highest earners).

In the humanities and liberal arts, anthropology and archaeology fared worst with 12.6% unemployment. English and literature majors scored 9% and 9.8% unemployment, respectively. These were followed by history, philosophy and religious studies at 9.5% each. Liberal Arts and foreign languages majors had the lowest unemployment rates at 8.1%, which is still pretty high.

Overall, the degrees with the lowest unemployment were as follows:

    Nursing: 4.8%
    Elementary education: 5.0%
    Physical fitness, parks & recreation: 5.2%
    Chemistry: 5.8%
    Finance: 5.9%

And the degrees with the highest unemployment rates were as follows:

    Information systems: 14.7%
    Architecture: 12.8%
    Anthropology: 12.6%
    Film, video and photography arts: 11.4%
    Political science: 11.1%

Health majors, including medical technologies and treatment therapy professions, had the lowest overall unemployment, in the 2%-3% range. And pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences were the highest earners, with “experienced college graduates” earning $180,000. Engineers also did pretty well in the money department.

If you want to know how your major holds up, or are considering a degree, you can read the full report.