Gabriel Rossman on Undergraduate Majors and Employment Levels

by Reihan Salam

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published a table of unemployment and earnings by college major. As you can imagine, the chart has attracted considerable favorable attention. But there is a problem with this approach, as the economic sociologist Gabriel Rossman of UCLA explains at his excellent blog Code and Culture:

There’s lots to talk about, particularly the STEM/humanities/social/vocational divide, but one thing that struck me was that the highest and lowest unemployment rates were dominated by tiny majors. In general, small populations tend to have more widely varying outcomes just as a function of standard error, which is why you should always ignore headlines about big jumps in the crime rate for small towns. Anyway, I downloaded the data, generated some plots, and yup, it’s your classic funnel.

Differences that seem stark melt away when you take size into account. But there are still a few noteworthy majors:

Moral of the story, don’t change your major from clinical psych to actuarial science just yet. On the other hand, nursing, elementary education, and general education really do appear to be real deal outliers of low unemployment.

And what do these majors have in common? In the case of nursing and elementary education, the answer is public subsidies. There have indeed been public sector layoffs since the financial crisis, yet the extraordinary expansion of public sector hiring over the previous decade, and the dramatic increase in spending on compensation in the heavily subsidized health sector, seems to have contributed to high and relatively stable employment levels.