A big move on many college campuses has been the proliferation of degrees and majors that sound just like job titles: Golf course operations, screenwriting, pharmaceutical marketing, you name it. There is no official count of these majors, but websites like mymajors.com list more than 1,800, along with the colleges that offer them. Ads on the street in any major city make the pitch that you can get a job in healthcare records administration, construction management, or something equally specialized with a degree from the advertised school.
There have always been degrees that seemed aimed primarily at getting the graduate a job. “Business” has been the most popular major in the U.S. since the 1981 recession. As I discuss in my new book, Will College Pay Off?: A Guide to the Most Important Financial Decision You’ll Ever Make, what’s different now is that these degrees and majors target specific job titles rather than occupations or broad fields. A number of studies find that students do chose majors based on their guess of where the jobs are. Currently students are following the advice to get so-called STEM (for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degrees.
There are many good reasons why attending college to prepare you for specific jobs is a bad idea. The first one, which is pretty basic, is that it's almost impossible when picking a college to predict what the job market will look like years later at graduation, especially recognizing that only 40% of full-time students graduate in four years. What will you do with that casino management degree if gambling is down the year you graduate and casinos aren’t hiring? You might well be better off with a broad, liberal arts degree.
The unpredictability of the job market even applies to STEM fields. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it turns out math and science degrees per se are not and have never been particularly hot. A recent Texas study found, for example, that sociology grads made more money than biology grads. Instead, it has generally been applied science degrees like engineering that have been gone through periods of huge demand—but even within those broad fields, what's hot at any given moment varies sharply over time.
In the past few years, for instance, the hottest job by far for new grads has been petroleum engineering, which had a dead job market until fracking unexpectedly revived it a few years earlier. Unfortunately, as new students follow advice to pursue hot jobs, graduates have been pouring out of petroleum engineering programs just as declining oil prices are smothering new exploration. Of course, freshly minted petroleum engineers can’t necessarily transform themselves into the next hot kind of engineer, so they very well may be stuck.
The general point about these engineering and tech jobs, as economist Richard Freeman observed decades ago, is that they are highly cyclical. As new technologies develop, they boom; and later they bust, partly because students pouring into hot job markets helps cool them off.
Nor do people stay in these technical fields for long, in part because possibilities for advancement are limited. In the peak of the dot.com era, for example, only 29% of grads with science and engineering degrees were in those fields two years later.
Most tellingly, employers don’t seem all that interested in vocational degrees. When asked about new grads, employers report that they are probably overqualified with respect to the job skills the employers expected them to have and underqualified in the areas we thought college was supposed to address: communication skills, interpersonal abilities, and self-management.
When asked what they look for in new college grads, a recent survey shows that employers are overwhelming interested in experiences outside the classroom, such as any kind of work experience students have had. (Of their top five criterion, “college major” is the only academic attribute.) This isn't very surprising given that only 25% of new grads report getting a job in their major—not unexpected if your major was philosophy, but a disaster if it was fire prevention management.
The truth is, it isn’t necessary to have a degree in a field to get a job in that field. Most computer programmers, for example, have no IT-related degree. A few specific classes and some real-world experience, even if as a volunteer, may be enough to get a job in most fields, and those actions can be taken much closer to graduation when it is possible to tell where the jobs are.
How about the long-term, after that first job? Taking all the practical courses for a vocational major means there are other courses one cannot take that might be better preparation for the long run. Economist Ofer Malamud did an interesting study comparing English college grads, who typically study only one subject in college, to Scottish grads, who take a broader mix of courses before focusing on a specialization. He found that the English grads changed careers more often (possibly because they knew less about alternatives) and had more difficulty making those changes (possibly because of narrower preparation) than did their Scottish peers.
So is it worth getting that degree in international tourism? The college course in probability (that you wouldn’t have time to take) says “no.”
Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. He is also the author of numerous books, including his most recent, Will College Pay Off?: A Guide to the Most Important Financial Decision You’ll Ever Make.