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New study shows architecture, arts degrees yield highest unemployment

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College kids may choose to spend their campus days studying the glories of Plato, Shakespeare and Le Corbusier.

But, as a new study points out, there may be a steep price to pay.

Recent college graduates with bachelor’s degrees in the arts, humanities and architecture experienced significantly higher rates of joblessness, according to a study being released Wednesday by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Among recent college graduates, those with the highest rates of unemployment had undergraduate degrees in architecture (13.9 percent), the arts (11.1 percent) and the humanities (9.4 percent), according to the study.

The recent college graduates with the lowest rates of unemployment had degrees in health (5.4 percent), education (5.4 percent), and agriculture and natural resources (7 percent.) Those with business and engineering degrees also fared relatively well.

“People keep telling kids to study what they love — but some loves are worth more than others,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, one of the study’s authors. “When people talk about college, there are all these high-minded ideas about it making people better citizens and participating fully in the life of their times. All that’s true, but go talk to the unemployed about that.”

The analysis, which was based on 2009 and 2010 data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, comes amid an increasing debate over the value of college education as an economic investment. Over the past two decades, the average amount of debt a student takes on has roughly doubled in real terms, leading to greater scrutiny of the financial returns of college.

Carnevale and his team have also quantified the value of various majors in terms of wages. Over a lifetime, the earnings of workers who have majored in engineering, computer science or business were as much as 50 percent higher than the earnings of those who majored in the humanities, the arts, education and psychology.

“If I had been any better at math, I might have gone into engineering — I would have liked to have an automatic job right out of college,” said Stephanie Kerner, a recent graduate with a degree in political science and psychology from Oglethorpe University. “Because, let’s be honest, no one wants to struggle like this.”

Kerner became unemployed in March after a brief job as a medical receptionist was cut. She has about $50,000 in student debt.

“I think you should go to school for what you love, but you should understand what you’re getting yourself into,” she added.

Erin Hayes graduated in the spring of 2010 with a degree in political science from the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Saddled with $28,000 in college debt, she is now again living with her father. The difficulty of the job market led her to seek a master’s degree in the fall, more quickly than she’d planned. Her recent job-seeking efforts have included a first interview at Barnes and Noble, a “no, thank you” e-mail from Target and attempts at temp agencies. She remains unemployed.

“Political science teaches you how to think,” she said. But “college should prepare students better for actual real life. You really should come out with some transferable skills.”

Whatever the woes of college graduates, however, the authors of the study opined that college is “worth it.”

While unemployment among recent college graduates stood at 8.9 percent, the rates were much, much higher among job seekers with less education. Unemployment among those with a recent high school diploma was 22.9 percent, and 31.5 percent of recent high school dropouts were without a job.

Results did vary by field, however.

Even across relatively similar fields, unemployment rates could be significantly different. For example, the unemployment rate for recent college graduates in information systems was 11.7 percent, while the rates for majors in computer science was 7.8 percent.

Unemployment rates were generally higher among those with degrees in non-technical fields, the authors said.

Majors aligned with particular occupations and industries — such as education and health — tended to show lower unemployment rates.

Even so, there appear to be few hard and fast rules. Graduates with degrees in architecture, which is closely linked with the construction industry, showed the highest levels of unemployment. The collapse of the housing industry has curtailed job prospects.

“It’s slim pickings out there, that’s for sure,” said Valerie Berstene, who graduated in May from Catholic University of America with a master’s degree in architecture. “It’s challenging in ways that I never anticipated.”

Although she has thought about pursuing other fields, she has no regrets about sticking with the field that she is devoted to.

“If I left for another field, I would miss architecture too much,” she said.

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