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Students Pay a Growing Price for Landing a Job Outside Their College Major

by Staff

Students who don’t end up in jobs after college that match their field of study earn less in the long term, but better guidance in high school can help them avoid this mismatch.

The pay gap between college-educated workers in and out of their fields of study widened by more than half between 1993 and 2019, according to a new University of Kansas study. This may undercut the benefits of a college degree for students who ended up in jobs outside their majors.

The findings come as students, parents, and policymakers debate the role of college in students’ career choices. National Student Clearinghouse data show 8 percent fewer students entered college after high school in 2022 than in 2019, and 40.4 million college-going students left college without earning a credential in 2021, 1.4 million more than in 2020.

“Too many students go to college not knowing what they want to get out of it or how to make it work for them,” wrote Michael B. Horn and Bob Moesta, co-authors of the 2019 book Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life, in an essay for Education Week. “Committing to a four-year school and taking on lots of debt when they lack passion and focus for the endeavor is risky.”

For their study, researchers Hugh Cassidy and Amanda Gaulke used data from the National Survey of College Graduates to compare the educational attainment, degree fields, and jobs of college graduates across the country from 1993 to 2019.

Overall, 83 percent of graduates in 2019 found jobs somewhat or closely related to their chosen field after college, a 2 percentage point increase from 1993. But the picture has worsened for Black and Hispanic college graduates, only about 78 percent of whom were well-matched in their careers after college.

“These findings could help explain the enrollment puzzle surrounding why, despite increases to the college premium during the 1990s, college enrollment and completion did not keep pace,” the researchers concluded.

While about 40 percent of graduates who took jobs outside of their degree field said they were looking to earn more money or faster advancement, Cassidy and Gaulke found the majority of them ended up making less money than they would have in their degree field, and they were more likely to be over-educated for the jobs they had.

“One of the things that we know is that occupations tend to be sticky. If your first job out of college is well-matched with what you studied, that tends to carry forward in terms of whatever future jobs you have over the course of your career,” said Zack Mabel, a research professor in education and economics at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, who studies high school-to-career links but who was not part of the University of Kansas study. “So, there’s a need for more intention and investment of effort and resources to help students have a better fit. As a nation, we need a comprehensive career-counseling system that has linkages between high school, college, and career to help individuals understand what they are capable of pursuing.”

He argued that college-planning programs in high school should ask students to look beyond basic majors and tuition available in different colleges, to dig into what education is needed for jobs that interest them and the average earnings for different majors in various college degree programs. For example, Virginia’s Office of Educational Economics provides information about the level of local demand and degrees required for different jobs.

Schools should give students more career exposure in high school, Mabel said, such as internships, work-study, and job shadowing, to help them understand the day-to-day atmosphere of different career fields.

For example, many schools have made a concerted effort to engage more students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But, the study found computer science and engineering graduates—particularly women—paid a bigger mismatch penalty than graduates in other fields like liberal arts. While more women are graduating in STEM fields today than in prior decades, women were less likely than men to end up getting jobs in those fields, in part because they were more likely to report worse work-life balance or fewer chances for promotion.

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