Best and Worst Degrees for Employment

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Learn more about the college degrees with the best - and worst - unemployment rates.

By Terence Loose

Are you thinking of going back to school to change or improve your career but unsure if a job will be waiting for you when you graduate? You're smart to wonder, because - while there's no guarantee that going to school will lead to a job - not all college degrees are created equally in employers' eyes.

In fact, that's part of the title of a 2012 Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce report. Called "Hard Times: Not all College Degrees Are Created Equal," the report found that in general earning a college degree could greatly increase your chance of avoiding unemployment.

Specifically, it states "unemployment for job seekers with no better than a high school diploma is a catastrophic 22.9 percent." Conversely, the unemployment rate for college graduates with bachelor's degrees was 8.9 percent.

But don't run blindly to the registrar's office just yet, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

"The most important thing is to understand that whether you're going to get a job and what you're going to make depends on what you take when getting a degree. All degrees aren't equal, so you should look before you leap."

Fortunately for you, we looked deeper into the report. And we picked the good director's brain for some insight into the best - and worst - majors for today's job market.

Lowest Unemployment Area of Study #1: Health Care
Unemployment Rate: 5.4 percent*

If your calling is to help care for your fellow man, then you'll likely find this to be great news: "The health care and social assistance industry is projected to create about 28 percent of all new jobs created in the U.S. economy," according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2020 projections.

Carnevale agrees. "[Health care is] a runaway train. The demand there has never been met and probably won't be for another 20 to 25 years," he says.

According to the Department of Labor, an aging population is one factor for this demand.

And the unemployment rate for recent health care degree graduates is indicative of this demand. Nursing grads, for instance, had a 4 percent unemployment rate between 2009 and 2010, according to the Georgetown study.

Click to Find the Right Nursing Program Now.

Nursing students could take classes such as health assessment, anatomy and physiology, or nutrition, according to the College Board, an organization that administers academic aptitude tests.


Highest Unemployment Area of Study #1: Architecture
Unemployment Rate: 13.9 percent*

Do you have plans to construct buildings and homes for a living? Well, you may want to redraft those plans. The "Hard Times" report only sees hard times for architects, which came in with the highest unemployment rate among all degrees.

"When Wall Street went under, construction and housing went down, and building in general went down. And that's where architects are," says Carnevale.

Or perhaps Carnevale should have said that's where the architects were. Most economists, he says, expect the housing industry to take about a decade to come back.

The College Board says architecture majors often take courses in architectural design and theory, building methods and material, or site design.

Related Degrees**:
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Lowest Unemployment Area of Study #2: Education
Unemployment Rate: 5.4 percent*

Do you enjoy passing on knowledge to others, especially the next generation? Education could be a good fit for you. And despite the news reports about governors cutting budgets, teaching jobs are projected to be high.

That's because the teaching work force is one with a higher than average age, according to Carnevale. This means there will likely be more job openings due to retirement.

"The retirement rate of teachers over the next 15 to 20 years is going to be huge. So there'll be openings in teaching even if they cut back on public spending," Carnevale adds.

Click to Find the Right Education Program Now.

If you decide to study education, you could study subjects like educational psychology, teaching methods, or philosophy of education, according to the College Board.


Highest Unemployment Area of Study #2: Arts
Unemployment Rate: 11.1 percent*

It's been said that to succeed as an artist, one must suffer. Well, according to the "Hard Times" report, that is certainly true today.

Still, those who are passionate about the arts are rarely dissuaded from pursuing a degree in the arts. So, Carnevale advises those who want to study such things as art, dance, and music to have a specific strategy.

For instance, "If you get a BA in the arts, you better plan on getting a master's degree. If you get a master's, the job market is a lot better, especially if you can get a teaching certificate," says Carnevale.

If you are still looking to pursue a degree in general arts, you could cover everything from art history to a variety of visual arts, such as photography and painting, according to the College Board.

Related Degrees**:


Lowest Unemployment Area of Study #3: Agriculture and Natural Resources
Unemployment Rate: 7 percent*

Related Degrees**:

  • Animal Sciences
  • Natural Resources Management
  • General Agriculture

Do you like the idea of solving world hunger? OK, how about just improving the food industry or helping protect the environment? These are some of the tasks that agriculture and natural resources majors could find themselves doing in careers such as agriculture and food scientists and environmental inspectors.

"One of the reasons this field has low unemployment is that the field requires very specialized knowledge - it's a very technical field now - and relatively few people go into it. So it's one of those cases where there's always been a supply problem. Not a lot of people grow up wanting to be ag scientists," says Carnevale.

True, but hey, someone's got to feed the world.

And if you are up for this challenge, you could study agriculture and take classes that might include agricultural economics, animal nutrition, or plant science, according to the College Board.


Highest Unemployment Area of Study #3: Humanities and Liberal Arts
Unemployment Rate: 9.4 percent*

Are you a born philosopher who is able to sit and contemplate life for hours? Or maybe you love to read Victorian era novels all day? Here's the bad news: not a lot of employers are into that sort of thing, according to the "Hard Times" report. In fact, philosophy/religious studies and anthropology/archeology recent grads had a 10.8 and 10.5 percent unemployment rate between 2009 and 2010, respectively.

Why? Generally, according to Carnevale, "The less specific your major is the more you need a specific strategy. If you get an engineering degree, the presumption is you want to be an engineer. You go to school in liberal arts, there's no presumption what you want to be."

That's why many grads in this area earn higher degrees or teaching certificates in order to get jobs, says Carnevale. Often the only opening for these grads is teaching positions.

If you do decide to pursue a degree in humanities, the College Board says that you could have courses in development of Western civilization, cultural history of Renaissance Europe, and rhetoric of social and political movements.

Related Degrees**:

  • Composition and Speech
  • History
  • English Language and Literature

Lowest Unemployment Area of Study #4: Communications
Unemployment Rate: 7.3 percent*

Related Degrees**:

Do you spend your day bouncing from one social media channel to the other? You're not alone. Even though the world of print media is shrinking - some would even say dying - communication is becoming increasingly more important, says Carnevale.

"Every institution now has its finance person, its computer person, and its communications person. So it's become part of the basic institutional infrastructure in the U.S.," says Carnevale.

Because of that, the job market for communications grads is unusually strong, he adds.

Click to Find the Right Communications Program.

If you are ready to earn a degree in communications, you could take classes in media law and ethics, mass media and society, and media criticism, according to the College Board.


Highest Unemployment Area of Study #4: Social Science
Unemployment Rate: 8.9 percent*

Do you often wonder why crowds act in a certain way? Why do cliques form, or why do some people turn to crime? While these are very important questions, a social science major often is not practical enough in the business world to be attractive to employers, according to Carnevale.

For instance, some majors under the social science umbrella include sociology, geography, and political science. But there is some hope.

"In the case of the social sciences, that area tracks closely with the economic cycle. So if the economy is going to recover by 2017, which most people believe, then social science will recover by 2017. It tends to ride right along with the economy," says Carnevale.

If you're still intrigued by this area of study, you could expect to study the way people behave and the institutions they create, such as government, according to the College Board. You'll also learn to research topics, come up with original ideas, and use statistics.

Related Degrees**:


*The unemployment rates from Georgetown University's "Hard Times" report is for recent college grads, ages 22 to 26, and based on data from the American Community Survey for the years 2009 and 2010.
**The related degrees options are from Georgetown University's "Hard Times" report.


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