College Guide


February 11, 2013 2:00 PM College Majors Don’t Have Anything to Do with Unemployment

By Daniel Luzer

Are too many people choosing liberal arts majors? Will it prevent them from getting jobs?

This is a popular line of reasoning among education critics, particularly Republican governors. North Carolina’s Pat McCrory recently indicated that he didn’t think it was a good idea for state college to offer liberal arts degrees: “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job. What are we teaching these courses for if they’re not going to help get a job?”

But this theory—people aren’t getting jobs because they’re choosing the wrong majors—is basically bullshit.

Matthew O’Brien over at The Atlantic has provided this handy graphic, which pretty effectively shows what’s going on with college majors and graduate employment.


The red line represents the unemployment rate of college graduates. The blue line represents “private non-residential fixed investment” (basically the state of the economy). Look at that, the lines follow pretty a pretty similar pattern.

There’s no indication that between 1999 and 2012 there was any aggregate change in college majors.

Indeed, aside from certain specific jobs (in, say, engineering or nursing) employers don’t really care much about job applicants’ college majors at all. Unemployed doesn’t have anything to do with what students study in college; it has everything to do with the economy.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on February 12, 2013 9:46 AM:

    Case in point: Lawyers.

    Even if majors do matter for job prospects, unless somebody has a crystal ball and can predict future hiring trends and economic development, there aren't going to be too many people who will successfully guess the most lucrative-potential college major. What's hot now may be history in twenty years. I work in the records office at a grad school for international studies, and boy you should see the historical data on all the students who enrolled in Soviet Studies, only to watch the USSR collapse...

    The point being, what you studied in the first four years of your adult life has little bearing on what you'll be doing for the next forty. What matters isn't a particular job skill--ask anybody in computer technology--but how well one adapts and evolves with the changing job market. And being able to think critically and creatively--ahem, like a good liberal arts student!--is always an advantage. Especially since any person is guaranteed to change job roles/functions or career paths altogether over the course of their life.

  • E.R. on February 12, 2013 11:20 AM:

    I'm not sure I agree Daniel. The expectations of what a candidate knows before even setting foot in the room is definitely higher now than before. I've spent the better part of the past year chatting with talent acquisition and campus recruiting professionals and there definitely is a feeling that many college students graduate under prepared for the workforce (both soft and hard skills).

    That said, making college a career pipeline isn't the answer nor is doing away with liberal arts. I agree with Sgt. Gym Bunny that creating versatile, critical thinkers is the name of the game. I studied social anthropology and found it to be a unique and interesting lens to view the world with in juxtaposition with the financial analysis lens I had acquired through summers at financial services institutions' internship programs. That diversity of thought/experience was/is important to me and helped form how I view the world.

    However, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to do a better job of communicating what skills are necessary to secure jobs and excel. That's a bit of what's missing. Just because now there isn't much visibility into what's needed to get into high demand positions doesn't mean there shouldn't be more. We have all of this technology enabling communication yet many students still graduate with no clue how to get a job much less perform well in one.

    To me, the solution is part more internships for students to gain experience, part better public-private partnerships and part technology to clear the lines of communication and give students a running start. When I mentioned I've been speaking with talent acquisition professionals, I was doing so while research this industry as a potential target for disruption. Many of my findings went into the development of a better way for college students to find internships.

  • Ronnie on February 13, 2013 12:05 PM:

    I have one major problem with your statistics, and therefore, with your conclusion. You are using "unemployment" as your benchmark as to whether or not the hypothesis that the abundance of liberal arts majors being a problem. That is extremely flawed because many liberal arts majors are technically not "unemployed" but are employed in jobs that either have nothing to do with what their ambition was, or don't even require a college diploma.

    Law schools have become notorious for this in their employment statistics. They say that 95% of their graduates are "employed" after graduation, when many of those people are working as waiters and at home depot. I know from personal experience that this is true. I graduated from the top criminal justice program in the country. I graduated 2nd in my class. You know what it got me? A full time job at an auto parts store and a mall cop. Many of my fellow graduates faced the same problems and became bank tellers, electricians, or joined the military. I was not technically "unemployed." However, my friends that graduated in engineering, accounting, and nursing all became...gasp...engineers, accountants, and nurses. There's no doubt that those majors lead to those actual careers and almost certainly higher income.

  • Daniel on February 13, 2013 6:09 PM:

    @Ronnie Sure it's true that lots of people have jobs that do not align with their ambitions. But liberal arts majors aren't supposed to directly connect to jobs. People who major in history or anthropology or religion don't expect to be historians and anthropologists and ministers. They're perfectly qualified to get a whole range of professional jobs, which don't require any particular academic major.