While I very much see the primary purpose of going to college as intellectual rather than practical (perhaps majoring in Classics is a dead give-away in this regard), for a lot of people one of the primary motivations for going to college is to improve their earning potential and employment prospects. This isn't crazy. In 2010, the median income for men with a bachelor's degree of higher was $61,388 a bit more than twice the median income of $30,232 of men with only a high school diploma. For women, the difference is even more stark: $41,132 for women with a bachelor's degree or higher vs. $17,830 for women with only a high school diploma. [source]
There's an interesting report out from the Social Science Research Council entitled Documenting Uncertain Times: Post-graduate Transitions of the Academically Adrift Cohort which sheds some interesting light on how a college education affects the employment prospects of people just out of college, and specifically, how their major and their academic performance their income, employment, debt, etc. The study is a followup to a book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses which used academic assessment tests to track how much students appeared to be actually learning while in college -- and found the results more modest than might have been hoped. This followup study is based on a detailed survey of roughly 1000 students, most of whom graduated in 2009 and the rest of whom graduated in 2010 or 2011.
Some of the things I found particularly interesting included:
65% of them reported having student loans, with the average student debt for those with debt being $27,200. 15% owed more than $50,000. (This is a lot, but given the stories one reads along the lines of "I owe $100k in student loans and can't get a job!" it's actually better than I expected.)
8% are married
9% are cohabiting
24% have moved back in with parents.
Their average income (for those working full time) is just under $35,000/yr. That average income is pretty much exactly the same if you look a the top 20% academically or the bottom 20% academically, but top 20% are only 3% unemployed while the bottom 20% are 9.6% unemployed.
Social Science/Humanities majors had an average income slightly higher than Science/Math majors ($32,200 vs. $31,721) but they were significantly more likely to be unemployed (6.9% vs. 4.8%)
Engineering/Computer Science majors had the highest average income ($50,625) while Education/Social Work majors had the lowest income ($28,500) and the highest unemployment (13%).
Those with the bottom 20% of the academic assessment scores were just as likely as those in the top 20% to have gone on to full time graduate school (31% vs. 30%). Students who had majored in science or math fields were the most likely to be in grad school (49%), humanities majors were about average (32%) and business and education majors were the least likely (16% and 17% respectively.)
And when it comes to the love life, those with health related majors were the most likely to be married or cohabiting (35%) while those who'd majored in engineering or computer science were the least likely to be so (13%).
The Characteristic of Truth
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