Supply and Demand: Technical vs. Humanities College Majors

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Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution writes that College Has Been Oversold:

Education is the key to the future: You’ve heard it a million times, and it’s not wrong. Educated people have higher wages and lower unemployment rates, and better educated countries grow faster and innovate more than other countries. But 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.

He shares the chart below comparing the number of graduates in various fields in 1984 vs 2009. Amazingly, compared with 25 years ago, there has been no increase in the number of students graduating in science, engineering, and math. Meanwhile, the number of students graduating in visual and performing arts, psychology, and communication and journalism has doubled.

This is a touchy subject. Just because you have a humanities degree does not mean you won’t find a meaningful career or financial security. The problem is the upfront price tag: can you really justify spending $100,000+ without a clear path to earning that money back?

From a supply and demand standpoint, the chart may help explain why college graduates are having a hard time finding jobs. For example over the last 25 years, I doubt the demand for psychology majors has doubled, and I really doubt the demand for engineering majors has stayed constant.

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  1. I’m unclear from where your $100,000+ figure originates. I don’t think it is accurate to assume everyone pays $100,000+ for college.

  2. I can tell you as someone that works for a Fortune 100 company that hires engineers – the demand for engineers has not gone down. Over half of the engineers we fire now must come from other countries since there are so few US graduates

  3. Alexandria says

    Good points.

    I graduated high school in 1994 and *most* of the best and brightest at my high school went to more expensive or private colleges for english and art type degrees. I remember being teased for going to State (I was undeclared – NO IDEA what I Was going to study). The irony is I chose accounting and the school I was going to was best business school around, anyway. Around 2002 – 2003 I Was quite settled into my career, licensed for a few years already, etc. I started running into old high school friends as facebook and the like started to pop up. A lot of these people were living at home still, no jobs, pinching pennies to get *real degrees* at State. Oh, my how times have changed! In addition to that, a few of them still live at home today with minmum wage type jobs. These are not upper class, not even upper middle class. I think it is somewhat generational. Absolutely no career ambitions? Parents seem conten to support them to eternity. I was personally out of the nest at age 17, and if not, my parents would have pushed me out soon after. I think my experience was different because I didn’t have a blank check to any college I wanted, and was expected to fend for myself very early on. This lead to much more practical choices than most my peers. A lot of my peers had parents who put education above all else. To their detriment, really. They were focused on getting into the best schools, but didn’t think beyond that.

    I do have a MINOR in humanities. Which is all well and dandy, but not practical for a major, for the vasy majority of us. That’s my personal compromise. (I am more passionate about my major, to be fair).

    Lesson learned? It’s probably not wise to spend life savings on a college degree on any 17 or 18 year old. Make sure they have a clear and practical path. I could only imagine sending my kids to a pricey college if they are really driven and clear on what their passions are. Otherwise, I think it is often too young to spend all your college resources – will regret later when path becomes clearer. That’s what I learned watching many friends go to all the big prestigous colleges for undergrad, and State colleges for Grad studies or do-overs. Seems all backwars to me, but I am sure the choice was largely financial.

  4. I graduated with an Illustration degree and I really think that visual arts is one of the best to get. Being comfortable with peer review, developing creative solutions to problems that go beyond the top card in the deck, ability to develop skills to feed the solution vs focing the solution to fit the current skills are all things that have allowed me to adapt. I do very little “illustration” anymore but the visual arts degree has helped me stay employed the past 15 years.

    Adapting is the only way you survive now-unless you are one of the lucky who inherit your parents fortune.

  5. Unfortunately people confuse cause and effect. Unemployment of college graduates is not lower because of their degree, but because of their drive and personality. If you were to lock them in a closet for four years, they would still find a job easier then the rest. Of course, “a job” doesn’t mean a job that requires a 4-year college degree. In fact there are fewer and fewer of those jobs in proportion to number of college graduates. With technological efficiencies and globalization, even the math and science graduates have a tough time finding a job for which they are not overeducated.

  6. Marie Miller says

    You are only on this planet for a short time.

    Don’t sell your out your soul for the greatest economic return.

  7. I agree with the point that there are far too many people getting degrees in psychology, communications and performing arts compared to the demand in those fields. Absolutely this is a big problem.

    Their number for computer science in 1980 is wrong.

    Census and Dept. of ed data both show 11-15k computer information or science degrees in 1980. The table shows more like 40k. 40k is about right for 2010. So it did grow substantially from 1980 to now.

    Shows about 11k students with computer info/science degrees in 1980 versus 42k in 2007. For engineering they only show chemical engineering. The total number of all engineering degrees went up from 69k to 82k.

    * I tried posting links but it didn’t accept my comment. Not sure if it was just a glitch or if thats a moderation function.

  8. Opps scratch that. I’m wrong. Their numbers for computer science are right.

    The chart is for 1984-1985. For some reason I misread it to be 1980. Apparently there were nearly 40k computer science degrees in 1984. The degrees in comp sci. grew drastically from 1980 to 1984. Thats about the same time computers really became mainstream so I guess that makes sense.

  9. This is the typical macro vs micro view debate. Like some posters above have shared, individually one’s degree is less important than the other factors, such as personality, communication skill, or even connections. However, the society as a whole do have a big problem with matching the skill of college graduate to the type of work available.

    The company I work for is always hiring new engineering graduate. We simply cannot find enough of them. That’s particularly true for jobs that require US citizenship. IMO, if you are a US citizen with an engineering degree, you have to work hard to be unemployed…

  10. Maybe I am too pessimistic, but I don’t see enough demand for US engeneers, CPAs and other high skill labor whose work can be digitized. And even professions like pharmacists and nurses, who can’t be easily outsourced, are experiencing an oversupply of recent graduates. HP predicted they won’t employ any US engineer in a decade. And even though companies like Microsoft, which is in my own backyard is always hiring new talent, vast majority of college graduates aren’t talented enough (and not merely untrained) to command a well-paid and secure job with the likes of Microsoft. Hence Microsoft imports real talent (which is also well trained) from India and China. Many people can be trained to be mediocre engineers, but the talent Microsoft is looking for isn’t acquired, it’s born with. Finally, even though a mediocrity (which by definition most people in the profession are) with an engineering degree or CPA and US citizenship can always find job with US government or its contractors. How long would this last? With current budget deficit US government itself would have to cut, replace with technology and global workers much of its operation to avoid default.

  11. There really aren’t that many jobs that really require 4 years of specialized training. Those that do generally involve advanced degrees. If someone can make sense out of TS Eliot, they can make sense of coding in C#. Companies who refuse to see this lose out. Over the scope of a career, being educated does a lot more for you than having a college degree that’s nothing more than training for a particular job.

  12. What about the other degrees in liberal arts and humanities that are less directly-related to a “real job,” like philosophy, history, and sociology? Is the graph just hiding the fact that more people are switching from those to degrees to psychology and communications/journalism, which still have great career paths in marketing, advertising, PR, health, law, and research?

    As a dual-degree graduate of both biology and psychology degrees, I’ve found a career in marketing and don’t see a dearth of jobs in my industry. But I can’t say the same for friends who’ve chosen careers in the sciences and engineering.

    While degrees in science and engineering may look like direct paths to jobs, the jobs aren’t as plentiful as one may think. Degrees in communication and psychology are flexible enough to apply across a wide spectrum of jobs.

  13. As with all statistics that only consider a narrow pov, this graph really tells us very little of reality. For one thing, it measures the value of one’s life based the quantity of money instead of quality of life. In addition, the increase in humanities majors is likely proportional to the increase in women graduates. The tech fields are still male-dominated and based on an “old boys network” for career advancement. Also, the vast majority of college graduates of non-tech majors do NOT have careers related to their majors. It’s also silly to expect the majority to be capable (cognitively and/or psychologically) of spending their lives crunching numbers, scientific research, programming, etc. I started off as a comp sci major for the jobs, then quickly switched to lib arts, and yes, I do have a job and financial independence, maybe not as lucrative as some tech careers, but I also have more autonomy and flexibility in how my job is done. I know I am intellectually capable of learning a STEM career, but I’m just not that into it, and just not that driven by money.

  14. “From a supply and demand standpoint, the chart may help explain why college graduates are having a hard time finding jobs.”

    Or, perhaps, there’s just many more unemployed people than job openings, and it’s just mathematically impossible for all those college graduates to find more jobs than are actually being offered.

  15. Hey, I graduated in 1984 with a computer science degree, and my son is currently studying computer science at my alma mater. It seems strange to me to think that the number of people in his major is the same as when I was in school.

    I wonder if my alma mater is representative in another matter – when I was there, somewhere in the neighborhood of 40% of the CS majors were women; today it is something in the 10% range.

  16. I know University of Washington, my alma matter, has a very small number of places for Computer Science majors, compared with other majors. So only the real talent can get accepted, as opposed to my department major, psychology, where virtually anybody accepted to the University will be accepted. Why? Because CS is a career major, and as I mentioned before, the industry wants only talented engineers. On the other hand to be a Psychologist you really need a PhD, and that program at UW is at least as competitive as CS undergraduate. To paraphrase a quote I’ve heard: “It’s much harder to learn engineering at the *superficial* level than psychology. But to become a truel expert in psychology is just as difficult as becoming a true expert in engineering” So, when high school students that are not college material are thrown by their parents and counselors onto the bandwagon of higher education, where would they go if not into an easy major like pscyhology that accomodates their low intellectual potential?

  17. The average debt of US graduates is in the low 20s.

    You also can’t have everyone getting a technical degree because 1) we’d flood the market and 2) most people aren’t cut out for such degrees.

  18. So I can’t speak to the more traditional engineering degrees (like chemical), but I know the field of computers and computer science have vastly expanded since the 80’s. So part of the explanation is that maybe about the same number are graduating with “pure” CS degrees, but many ancillary fields have popped up like IT, or MIS, or even digital art and interactive media. So the number of people in the field have definately increased, but likely a smaller percentage of them are CS people, and more have alternative degrees.

    This may also affect other engineering degrees to a lesser degee. I know one guy who switched from being a straight Mechanical Engineer to a newer Robotics Engineering degree.

    Although what really is concerning to me is that the absolute numbers in such fields haven’t changed, so that means a smaller percent of the population is actually going into science fields. I feel that’s due to the less emphasis that has been placed on science recently, since the cold war and space race definately had been big pushers for (US based) scientists and engineers.

  19. The problem is nowadays employers want hands-on experience, and colleges don’t provide hands-on experience. College graduates seem clueless to employers.

  20. csdx – yes there may be many people with different degrees working in computer related fields, but as someone who got his degree back in 1984, that’s not anything new. When I started working, it was unusual to find many people that I worked with (besides other recent graduates) who had computer science degrees. The reason then was simple – computer science programs were fairly new. The computer science program at my school (a prominent engineering school) was only about 10 years old when I started there.

  21. For more data you can google the following :
    “digest of education statistics 2010 postsecondary education list of 2010 digest tables”
    That will get you to the Dept. Education tables.

    csdx: The CS degree category they list includes all variety of computer sciences. So it does include IT, CIS, etc.

    If you look at ALL computer and engineering degrees then they went from around 14% in the mid 1980’s to 7.7% in 2008. So its not just that people migrated one engineering field to another. All tech is down as far as % of total degrees.

    ttfitz : Yes actually that is a national trend. The % of women in CS peaked in the mid 1980’s. In the 80’s around 35% of CS majors were women and today is less than half that around 16%.

    Albert : If you look at the broader categories of ‘humanities’ and ‘social and behavior sciences’ then both of those broad categories have grown since the 80’s. In 1984 we had degrees in humanities of 13.6% and social / behavior of 13.4%. In 2008 those percents had grown to 17.5 and 16.4.
    So the increase in psychology, communications and arts is not just due to people switching out of other humanities and social sciences.

  22. Joh said : “In addition, the increase in humanities majors is likely proportional to the increase in women graduates. ”

    More women is part of it. However the growth in these degrees has increased in men and women.

    Looking at communications, journalism :
    In 1984 there were 17k men and 25k women.
    In 2008 there were 31k men and 51k women.

    Thee total # of degrees was
    1984 : 482k men and 496k women
    2008 : 685k men and 915k women

    So the % of communications, journalism degrees by sex were:

    1984 : 3.5% men and 5% women
    2008 : 4.5% men and 5.5% women

    The % of people getting communications/ journalism degrees increased for both sexes. This is not just a reflection of more women in college. In fact the % of men getting those degrees rose faster than the % of women.

    Similarly looking at psychology…

    1984 : 12k men 27k women
    2008 : 21k men 72k women

    Psychology majors as % of all degrees :
    1984 : 2.5% men and 5.4% women
    2008 : 3% men and 7.8% women

    For this field the higher # of women is more impactful and its been growing more for women.

  23. Kinda funny as I’ve done quite a bit of hiring the last few years for a software company. My general feeling – college degrees are pretty much worthless indicators of anything. I have people with advanced degrees (who were hired before I arrived) and they’re awful. Flip that, many of my employees with humanities degrees are excelling in technical fields. Why? Desire. Interest. Ability. The degree only shows someone went through the motions of getting through the waste of time known as undergraduate college/aka extended high school. Plenty of highly skilled people taught themselves programming or learned everything needed after college – most often when they realized school turned out to be a waste.

    FWIW, I “earned” a comm degree in the 90s and then did my masters in business. Both remain irrelevant to my work. But they open doors when HR/hiring managers see the degrees. Door openers…nothing more. If my mega-corporation didn’t block employee advancement for people lacking degrees I’d be happy to extend my search to folks who never bothered with college.

  24. As others have pointed out, so much engineering work has been off-shored that the pool of jobs has shrunk too. Companies – especially large ones – are reluctant to hire 4 engineers for 120k each when they can get 12-16 for the same price in India. Or what we see 1 engineer for 4-5-6 in India. The company still has someone on the US side looking over the work and guiding it but overall the majority of the labor is carried out on a much, much cheaper contractor basis. When the project is over, the Indian labor is released and the company doesn’t show any layoffs while they’ve also kept costs down for everything from HR to insurance to pension matching. It’s a sham…

  25. Forget about corporate jobs, executives only keep finding ways to outsource middle-to-lower tier jobs for more corporate profit and bonus. If you’re smart, you better become enterprenuers and be your own boss.

  26. Personally, I’m rather shocked that the numbers in STEM subjects are so low in the US. Perhaps that’s just an effect of my personal experience in pursuing one of those degrees in a very competitive university, that we always had to fight to earn top grades because there were so many people applying for a limited number of seats.

    To respond to Steve above, re: “Understanding TS Eliot vs. C#”:

    As somebody who once considered minoring in English – and thus taking several courses in that direction (and incidentally came across TS Eliot) – you’re probably correct in that the intelligence to understand C# code is there, but the CS degree should also impart a framework of concepts and structures necessary to succeed in computer science – which can only be acquired through years of academic or practical experience.

    Simply taking a top-notch English major (unless they have already taught themselves the requisite skills) and throwing them on a programming assignment would be quite challenging for an employer, and require a great investment in time and lost productivity – especially when there are tons of people with H1-B visas who theoretically are ready-to-go. While an English major may potentially become very successful in science/technical careers, they’ll need to learn a great deal first.

    A CS or related degree, thusly, is a shortcut to finding qualified job candidates – even if the methodology is not perfect.

  27. Very interesting article! Coming as someone who chose a technical career path, I’m not sure how I can phrase my opinion without coming off as self-serving but here are my observations:

    There are exceptions to every rule and I’m not going to disagree with those who have successfully made the transition from a non-technical major to a technical field (or know those who have) but it’s my personal observation that my friends who majored in a technical field (CS, EE, etc) had noticeably less problems finding employment upon graduation than those who majored in liberal arts.
    As someone who has done hiring, my opinion is that when companies make the decision to hire a candidate, they try to maximize the probability of success. Hiring technical majors for technical positions is a key part of that. That is why some companies look for only candidates with a certain major, or candidates with > 3.0 GPA, or candidates with prior relevant work experience. Does that mean if you do not have a 3.0 GPA you are definitely not going to be a good fit for the company? Of course not – I’ve met people who have had low grades in college for varied, but perfectly reasonable explanations (military deployment, major change, family issues) but companies are trying to maximize the odds for getting a successful candidate and that is why many companies will not even give interviews to people who don’t meet that criteria.
    I agree with posters who say that a person’s other skills (communication skills, ability to work on a team, ability to learn, etc) are better indicators of success than just a person’s major, but many of those factors are not easily evaluated in a single job interview. I believe that is why companies (looking to fill technical positions) still place a heavy emphasis on the major.
    Also, most of the jobs that are outsourced are “lower level programming jobs” that are typically filled by entry level engineer graduates. There has been (and I believe there always will be) a strong market for engineers with advanced degrees/knowledge.

  28. To prove the point, I’d love to see this plotted against real median incomes for graduates of those majors over the same period. Unfortunately I don’t have the ambition to put it together right now.

    I can’t believe there are less computer scientists graduating now than in 1984.
    I found the source:

    They broaden the category to “computer informationm” and it looks like 1984 may have been an outlier… but even if you normalized it’s a surprisingly small increase.

  29. I believe picking the right degree in college is very important. So many people I know feel they have wasted their college experience because there is just no demand in their field. These days people are picking based on the demand unfortunetly 200 people are receiving degrees in an economy only needing 100 people. It seems it is harder and harder to find a position for everyone in their degree.

  30. Confused Student says

    I know this forum is really old, but I’m hoping some of you may receive my question and can offer me some advice.

    I am transferring to a 4 year University from Community College and have no idea what to major in. I am a woman, in late 20’s, I will be around 30 when I graduate. I want to be employable and able to earn an attractive salary. Public Administration and Negotiation and Confict Resolution Degrees have both been brought to my attention. Any opinions on these degrees?

  31. Yeah. Do your own research. The information is all out there on google but I would seriously advise you to think rationally about your choice of major and look at data like starting salaries, unemployment, and employment forecast. College is absolutely worth it, provided you work hard, but it would be retarded to sell your self into student loan slavery to get a really ‘hip’ degree.

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