A journey, not a destination
University Career Services’ report on May 2012 graduates hints at the College’s strengths, weaknesses
A report by University Career Services detailing the pathways of May 2012 College of Arts & Sciences graduates yields some interesting—and at times disheartening—insights.
For the report, the University’s Center for Survey Research collected data from May 2012 graduates between April 2012 and January 2013. Of 2,428 eligible students, 984 participated in the study.
This destinations report focuses solely on the prospects of recent College graduates. Professional schools such as commerce and engineering do not figure into the survey’s findings. We are thus able to assess, at least partially, the earning potential of the University’s liberal arts students.
Of the students who responded, the top majors represented were psychology (15 percent), biology (12 percent), politics and economics (11 percent each) and history and English (8 percent each).
Forty percent of College graduates accepted full-time employment, while 26 percent chose to go straight to graduate school. (This last figure is important: we will return to it soon.) Eleven percent of the students polled were still seeking full-time employment. Students who landed jobs earned an average salary of $41,058 and a median salary of $38,000.
For comparison’s sake, another 2012 destinations report—this one for the Commerce School—finds that 86 percent of students graduating with a bachelor of science in commerce accepted full-time employment. Just 8 percent chose to pursue graduate school. Among Commerce’s tracks, students who pursued a finance concentration came out on top, earning an average base salary of $64,914. Marketing concentrators earned an average base salary of $49,023—the lowest in the bunch, but not shabby.
The numbers for the College mirror figures compiled by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which relies on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau. The association’s September 2012 salary survey found that the average salary for 2012 bachelor’s degree graduates in humanities and social sciences was $36,824. The average for graduates in math and sciences was $42,355. These two categories represent most closely the majors found in the College.
What does it mean that the average starting salary for College graduates is, all things considered, fairly close to the national average? Isn’t the University special? And what can we surmise about the double-digit rate of students seeking—but not finding—full-time employment?
We can chalk up part of the answer to the endlessly documented economic woes Americans, recent college graduates included, have weathered in the past five years or so. The overall unemployment rate for recent college graduates—“college” here referring to all undergraduate degrees—is 7.9 percent, according to a May 29 study from Georgetown University. And that figure does not take into account a pronounced trend toward underemployment: increasingly, college graduates have taken jobs that do not require bachelor’s degrees, or they have worked part-time instead of full-time. It is no wonder that the Georgetown report bore the Dickensian title “Hard Times.” University graduates are not immune to economic vicissitudes.
Another part of the answer is more uplifting. It lies in the educational attainments that students pursue after they cross the Lawn, bachelor’s diploma in hand. A high proportion of College students—26 percent, roughly two-thirds the number who accepted a job right after graduating—go straight to graduate school. By contrast, Yale, which presumably prepares its students quite well for postgraduate study, saw roughly 20 percent of its 2010 class attend graduate school within a year of graduation.
Graduate study increases earning potential significantly. The 2012 destinations report cannot take into account the lift an advanced degree might give to College graduates’ salaries. But we wonder: how does the average lifetime salary of College graduates compare with the average lifetime salary of Commerce School graduates? This question, as framed, is imperfect. College students present a much wider, larger and more varied sample set, and Commerce students are doubly vetted: first to get into the University, and then to win admission to McIntire. In addition, a comparative study of mid-career salaries would have to account for the fact that graduate school imposes an additional expense. But such a study would be useful, and would perhaps quell some concerns about the value of a College degree—and perhaps calm some parents pushing their children to flee to McIntire.
The College’s 2012 destinations report hints at an argument that College officials should be making, or at least making more forcefully. Often, critics of the College make the mistake of judging an undergraduate experience not by the experience itself but by future earning potential. When faced with this limited perspective, College officials can still defend the worth of a liberal arts degree by pointing to the high number of students who win admission to graduate programs.
The College, the numbers show, is preparing many students for more advanced study. This fact speaks in its favor for a few reasons. First, it shows that the College instills in students a work ethic and desire to learn sufficiently powerful to motivate them to pursue advanced degrees. Second, it indicates that the College breeds competitive graduate-school applicants.
By framing itself as a launch pad for top graduate schools—at least for students so inclined—the College could simultaneously boost its intellectual credibility and its potential as a financially wise choice for prospective students. To bolster this line of argument, College officials would need to devote more funding to graduate advising or at least highlight the advising opportunities currently available. The first destinations report, while useful, is in some ways misleading. What counts for liberal arts degrees is not always the first destination, but the journey. that comes afterward.