Are the most popular bachelor's degrees among students also popular with employers in the real world?
Are you thinking of going back to school but not sure what to study? It's only natural to gravitate toward a major that's popular. But are the popular majors what employers want?
This is an important question, as you're probably going back to school to change careers, get a promotion, or get a job. So the last thing you want to do is hang around the popular major for a few years only to find out it's all looks and no brains. Remember how well that worked out in high school?
To help you sift through the choices, we consulted a 2011 study titled "What's It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors" by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. It breaks down 171 majors in 15 major groups, rating their popularity and earning potential.
But we didn't stop there. We cross-referenced that data with a 2012 Georgetown study called "Hard Times, Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal," which reports on unemployment rates for recent college grads with bachelor's degrees in specific majors or larger major groups. For popular major groups that also enjoyed low unemployment, we provided examples of specific majors from the group that are leading the way in terms of employability.
Finally, we consulted Susan Heathfield, a management consultant and writer of About.com's Guide to Human Resources, for a take on which majors today's employers actually want. So before you sidle up to the most popular degree on campus, read on to see whether it offers any future, or whether the fun will be over the morning after graduation.
Popular Major Group #1: Business
Percentage Studying Business: 25*
Maybe it's because, as U.S. President Calvin Coolidge once said famously, the chief business of the American people is business. Maybe it's because business is such a versatile area of study. Whatever the reason, business came in number one in the Georgetown "Worth" study, with a whopping 25 percent of students pursuing some sort of business degree.
Thumbs Up or Down? Business is a thumbs up, says Heathfield, because it's a solid area of study that employers like. But more specifically among the business major group, Heathfield is a big fan of accounting degrees. "I'm most high on accounting," she says. "Accounting is an area that is applicable to every industry, so job opportunities will be plentiful."
Accounting scored well on Georgetown's "Hard Times" report, too, backing up Heathfield's optimistic outlook. Recent accounting majors had just a 6.8 percent unemployment rate, according to that report.
Think an accounting program is only about crunching numbers? Fear not. According to the College Board, a nonprofit research organization that promotes higher education, as an accounting major, you might supplement your accounting and auditing instruction with courses like business law, accounting information systems, and tax accounting.
Popular Major Group #2: Education
Percentage Studying Education: 10.6*
If learning how to help mentor the next generation sounds good, you're not alone. The Georgetown "Worth" study placed majors in the education field - everything from art and music education to elementary education to special needs education - at second in popularity among students.
Thumbs Up or Down? The education major group is another thumbs up, says Heathfield. "We'll always need teachers, but I also see these jobs as regional. If [education] graduates are willing to follow the jobs, and move to where the opportunities arise, then they will be employable," she says.
One specific education major that's popular with both Heathfield and students alike is elementary education. A full third of students studying education are pursuing a bachelor's degree focusing on elementary, according to the Georgetown "Worth" report.
And that popularity could have something to do with the fact that recent elementary education grads face an unemployment rate of just 4.8 percent - third only to nursing and family and consumer sciences - according to Georgetown's "Hard Times" study.
According to the College Board, in an elementary school teaching program, you might take classes in child development and learning, teaching methods, and educational psychology.
Popular Major Group #3: Humanities and Liberal Arts
Percentage Studying Humanities and Liberal Arts: 9.7*
In ancient Greece, the liberal arts were pursued by those who wanted to become virtuous, articulate, and well-rounded. And apparently, we still like that idea, since the humanities and liberal arts came in third overall in the Georgetown "Worth" study.
Thumbs Up or Down? Thumbs down. Unfortunately, in today's world, employers are not so enamored with Renaissance men. They want people who can sell things, engineer things, design software, etc. And Heathfield agrees: "I love the liberal arts, but these graduates don't come out with many marketable skills."
Perhaps that's why the Georgetown "Hard Times" report found the unemployment rate among recent grads of the humanities and liberal arts major group to be a startling 9.4 percent.
Of course, if you do decide to test the odds and pursue a humanities program, the College Board says you might take courses such as history of literary criticism and theory, and development of Western civilization. If you decide on a liberal arts and sciences program, classes such as cultural anthropology or English literature might be in your curriculum.
Popular Major Group #4: Engineering
Percentage Studying Engineering: 8.2*
Do you like to tear things apart and figure out how they work? Maybe you love to figure out better ways to build things. If so, engineering might be the major for you. And although the Georgetown "Worth" study ranked the engineering major group at number four out of 15, Heathfield feels it should be at the top of people's lists.
Thumbs Up or Down? Thumbs way up. Heathfield says engineering, especially bio-engineering and electrical engineering, is a top pick for her. Why? "There will be jobs for engineers and those jobs pay very well," she says.
Georgetown's "Hard Times" study doesn't contradict. Recent graduates from the engineering major group face an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent. Still, Heathfield says it is a tough major.
If you want to pursue electrical engineering, for example, the College Board says your class schedule might include digital systems, electrodynamics, circuit analysis and design, and semiconductor technology. Not exactly a breeze, to say the least.
Popular Major Group #5: Health***
Percentage Studying Health: 6.9*
In case you haven't noticed, there's been a lot of talk around health care in the past few years. A lot. That's because the aging baby boomer generation is living longer and needs more tests and procedures, says Heathfield.
Thumbs Up or Down? Thumbs way up. According to Heathfield, anything in the health care field is a winner. Talking field specifics, Heathfield likes nursing and pharmaceutical technology. "Nursing because it's hands-on, and pharmaceutical studies because we are such a [medication]-dependent society," she says.
Although Georgetown's "Hard Times" study doesn't offer unemployment figures for pharmaceutical technology majors, it does report a refreshingly low 4.0 percent unemployment rate for recent nursing grads.
If you're thinking of studying nursing, here are some classes you might encounter: anatomy and physiology, chemistry, microbiology, and nutrition.
* According to a 2011 study titled "What's It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors" by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
** All related majors selected from larger major group as determined by the Georgetown "Hard Times" report.
*** At 6.9 percent, the popular major group health was tied with social science.
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