In an earlier piece, I looked at a Forbes report on the top ten employers in the United States for people aged 18 to 29. None of these were employers of highly skilled or highly labor, considering that this is one of the best educated (or at least most credentialed) generations in history. This made me wonder what kinds of education these young people might have. I looked at the 2009 individual-level census data to see what the most common degree fields were in that recent year.
Among all young people aged 29 or under with a bachelors degree or more, the most common degree field was psychology (5.7 % of degree holders). That was almost matched, though, by business management and administration (rounding off at 5.7%). In descending order, the next most common degrees were biology(3.9%), elementary education (3.4%), communications (3.1%), marketing and marketing research (2.9%), English language and literature (2.9%), political science and government (2.9%), general business (2.8%), accounting (2.8%), and nursing (2.7%). If you are like me, and you enjoy rows of numbers, you'll probably find that interesting. But most people probably want to know what that means. One thing we might notice is that although there are some liberal arts type of degrees in the list, most of these are explicitly vocationally oriented. I've generally argued that as more people get college degrees, this creates pressure for job-oriented credentials. When very few people have completed college, you can study what you like and still get that management job. When you have to compete with many other graduates, a business management degree might give you the edge. Ironically, then, the declining place of liberal arts in higher education can be attributed to rising college enrollments.
Of course, we know that young women now make up a majority of college students and recent college graduates, but do their areas of study still differ from those of men? Among men, the top ten degree fields were: business management and administration (7 %), finance (4 %), computer science (3.9%), general business (3.7 %), political science and government (3.5%), biology (3.3%). economics (3.1%), psychology (3%), accounting (2.9%), and mechanical engineering (2.8%). Men may be less likely than women to go to college these days, but when they do, they are most likely to go into fields that they think will get them work.
Among women, the business orientation is there, but much less marked. Their major fields were: psychology (7.7%), elementary education (5.3%). business management and administration (4.7%), biology (4.4%), nursing (4.2%), English language and literature (3.5%), communications (3.5%), marketing and marketing research (3.1%), accounting (2.7%), and political science and government (2.4%). The first thing that should leap out at us is that several of the preferred fields for women (elementary education, literature, communications) are relatively low paying fields. Men and women, even when they get degrees, aim in different directions. Unless we believe that an Office of Gender Engineering should be trying to change the choices men and women make, we may need to just accept the differences.
What about race? I don't want to carry this listing too far, so I've just looked at black degree holders. Like whites, the most common degree field was business management and administration (7.5%). But there were substantial differences in concentration. The rest of the list reads: psychology (7%), biology (4.8%) , criminal justice and fire protection (3.7%), sociology (3.3%), accounting (3.3%), communications, (3.3%) general business (3.2%), marketing and marketing research (3.1%), and nursing (3.0%). Blacks and whites were not all going in two completely different directions, but there were enough differences to conclude that racial vocational concentrations and income inequalities are still big parts of our national landscape, even among college graduates. Again, since these are matters of the choices people make, there are good arguments for simply accepting the differences.
One final thought: many young people appear to be thinking about college in terms of getting jobs. But if we recall the Forbes list, we might wonder how many of those aspiring business administrators and financiers will end up marching in the military or standing behind a counter at Walmart. Or, we might wonder how many of them will be rejected from those retail and service jobs because they are seen as overqualified.