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Money-making college degrees
The biggest bang for your college buck.
August 19, 2003: 11:34 AM EDT
By Les Christie, CNN/Money Contibuting Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - If you're just entering college, leaving it and finding a nice job is likely pretty far from your mind.

But cast your thoughts ahead a few years and look at your prospects: You've put in four years of hard work, now you're ready for that lucrative first job, right? Well, that depends just what your newly-minted degree is in. Technologically-minded grads, you can relax. But humanities students may be out of luck.

"For too many students, college is just four years of summer camp," says Paul E. Harrington, a senior economist for the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University and the author of "The College Majors Handbook: The Actual Jobs, Earnings, and Trends for College Graduates of 60 College Majors."

Harrington says students, as investors in their education, should try to find ways to make their expensive investments pay off. He advises incoming freshmen to work at figuring out who they are as people, clarifying their interests, and assessing their abilities. They should devise strategies so they can leverage their majors into more satisfying -- and lucrative -- careers.

Consider whether a technical education suits your talents and desires, suggests Harrington. Historically, graduates with tech educations have had more job choices than those in the softer sciences.

This becomes especially important in the kind of challenging job climate that exists today, which has resulted in what Harrington has identified as a labor-market shift.

"Everyone is moving down the labor queue, but the relative positions have stayed the same," he says. Many of those at the front of the line have tech degrees. They're getting many of the most attractive offers and pushing other grads down the line to lesser jobs.

Tech grads also exhibit the greatest amount of career mobility. "An engineering degree gives a graduate access to a whole array of fields," Harrington says. After a few years working as engineers, many move on to sales or management. Too, they often go on to get MBAs, to law school, or into health care.

Biology and pre-med students have similar mobility, says Harrington. Although they are unlikely to go into engineering, virtually every other field is open to them.

In contrast, social science or humanity degrees are much more restrictive; some of these grads make their way into business careers but they rarely venture into any more technical field. A business degree also tends to restrict mobility, but the potential to make a lot of money helps offset that disadvantage.

Unemployment up, salaries down

This year, even tech graduates have had to face a tougher economic climate with fewer job offers and lower starting salaries. "Seniors expected this year's job climate to be difficult and it has been," says Michelle Forker, senior vice president at MonsterTRAK, a spin-off of that specializes in connecting employers with college students.

According to the latest figures from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the jobless recovery has hit computer-engineering majors especially hard; their average starting salary declined 7.6 percent during the past year to $51,720.

Computer science majors (down 4.4 percent to $47,419), management information systems majors (down 4.2 percent to $40,915), and information services majors (down 6 percent to $39,787), joined in the declines.

Grads holding their own included chemical engineers at $52,853 up 0.8 percent, economics and finance majors ($40,764, up 0.3 percent), and history majors ($32,108, up 2.9 percent).

English majors made even greater gains. Employers offered them starting salaries of $30,157, on average, up 5.9 percent from last year, an increase matched by criminal justice majors (average starting salary $29,324).

The health-care field continues to hold up well; grads with nursing degrees attracted average salary offers of $38,751, or 2.5 percent higher than last year. But the big winners were pharmacy majors. Their average starting salary of a whopping $81,235 rose 4 percent over the last 12 months.

Improving the odds

Forker says entering college students can take steps during their college years to optimize their chances of obtaining attractive employment when they graduate. Her suggestions include:

  • Gain relevant work experience. Only 46 percent of students pursue internships, according to a MonsterTRAK poll. Internships not only provide students work experience, they also enable students to acquaint themselves with prospective employers.
  • Network. MonsterTRAK found a mere 15 percent of students try to maintain a web of relationships with others in their disciplines. Most think they have to already be working in the field to benefit from networking.
  • Prepare to succeed. Practice job interview techniques. Many schools offer workshops in resume writing and interviewing, with role-playing and critiques, according to Forker. MonsterTRAK's Web site provides tips and mock interview questions.

Job openings have proven limited this year, according to Camille Luckenbaugh, spokesperson for NACE. "Graduates who haven't received full-time job offers are looking for other things like part-time employment," she says. "Some are willing to do unpaid internships to get their foot in the door."

Steadily increasing college costs have stepped up the pressure to obtain gainful employment. Undergraduate student loan debt leapt 66 percent during the last five years, to a mean average of $18,900, according to a survey conducted by Nellie Mae, the leading student-loan lender. That doesn't include credit card balances or promised reimbursements to moms and dads.

All this underlines just how times have changed since today's grads entered college four short years ago. Back then employers competed vigorously for grads, who commanded high salaries, option packages, and abundant perks.

Now, MonsterTRAK reports that some 62 percent of this year's graduates plan to live at home for a while. That should provide motivation for them to find full-time employment.  Top of page

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