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College majors with the highest & lowest unemployment rates

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With increased hiring activity in recent months, unemployment is at historic lows. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the U.S. economy added 75,000 jobs in May 2019, and the unemployment rate remained at 3.6 percent—the lowest it’s been since December 1969. This drop continues a trend of steadily decreasing unemployment since the 9.9 percent peak during the Great Recession.

At the same time as unemployment rates have been dropping, educational attainment has been rising. In 2018, 76.9 million people over the age of 25 had a bachelor’s degree or higher, an increase of almost 20 million over the past 10 years. Since the 1950s, the number of people with less than a high school education has been cut in half.


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This is good news because higher levels of education are generally correlated with better employment prospects and lower unemployment rates. Those with a bachelor’s degree (not including individuals with an advanced degree) have an unemployment rate of 2.5 percent. Individuals with only a high school diploma have a 4.6 percent unemployment rate, a full percentage point higher than the overall unemployment rate.

That said, earning a bachelor’s degree isn’t a guarantee of career success, and not all college graduates are benefitting from the improving job market. A student’s choice of major can have a significant impact on employment prospects and earning potential. In general, majors that are tightly coupled with a specific career path, such as engineering or education, are likely to have lower unemployment rates than broad majors like liberal arts or mass media. Overall, STEM majors fare better in the job market when compared to degrees in the humanities, performing arts, or social sciences.

Interestingly, among college majors there is no significant correlation between median wages and unemployment. The median early-career salary for all bachelor’s degrees is $40,000, and the median mid-career salary is $68,000. Education-related majors tend to have low unemployment rates, but also much lower salaries compared to the median for all bachelor’s degrees. On the flip side, construction services majors earn a median mid-career wage of $85,000 but have one of the highest unemployment rates among all college majors. When assessing a major’s value in the marketplace, students should look beyond expected earnings and also consider factors like job security and projected career growth.

To find which college majors have the highest and lowest unemployment rates, tutoring firm HeyTutor analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2016 & 2017 American Community Survey. The unemployment and underemployment rates shown are for recent college graduates (ages 22 to 27). To control for education level, the median wages shown are for full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree, but no graduate education. Here’s what they found:


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Majors with the highest unemployment rates

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1. Mass Media

  • Unemployment: 7.8%

  • Underemployment: 55.2%

  • Median early-career wage: $35,000

  • Median mid-career wage: $60,000

  • Share with graduate degree: 18.3%

Mass media majors learn the theory and practice behind different types of written, visual, and audio media. Mass media is often the first step to a career in journalism or broadcast news, but recent layoffs in the industry and projected negative career growth suggest that mass media majors might want to look elsewhere for gainful employment. Careers in advertising and marketing are other possible options for graduates in mass media.

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2. Liberal Arts

  • Unemployment: 6.7%

  • Underemployment: 58.4%

  • Median early-career wage: $33,400

  • Median mid-career wage: $60,000

  • Share with graduate degree: 27.8%

Liberal arts majors undertake a variety of coursework in the humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, and arts. While liberal arts courses can be intellectually engaging, the broad nature of this curriculum can make it more difficult to hone in on a particular career path. Choosing a concentration within the liberal arts or adding a minor to show an area of expertise could help with job prospects.

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3. Anthropology

  • Unemployment: 6.6%

  • Underemployment: 59.1%

  • Median early-career wage: $33,000

  • Median mid-career wage: $57,000

  • Share with graduate degree: 46.9%

Anthropology majors study the evolution of humans, with a special focus on culture, biology, and language. Human paleontology and forensics are other essential components of the anthropology curriculum. Since there are few jobs directly related to anthropology, students in this major might pursue careers in universities, museums, or research institutions.

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4. Philosophy

  • Unemployment: 6.2%

  • Underemployment: 50.9%

  • Median early-career wage: $36,000

  • Median mid-career wage: $62,000

  • Share with graduate degree: 57.3%

Philosophy majors focus on the study of logic, thought, debate, and ethics. Aside from becoming a philosophy professor, there are no direct careers for philosophy majors like there would be for education or engineering. Instead, philosophy majors must rely on transferable skills when making the transition to the workforce. Careers that involve teaching, research, and writing are good options for philosophy majors.

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5. Construction Services

  • Unemployment: 6.1%

  • Underemployment: 34.0%

  • Median early-career wage: $56,000

  • Median mid-career wage: $85,000

  • Share with graduate degree: 10.4%

Construction services majors prepare for careers in construction. Students in this field learn skills related to cost estimating, facilities management, building codes, budgeting, and construction safety. Even though unemployment rates are high at 6.1 percent, early-career and mid-career wages are above the overall median for bachelor’s degree holders. Only 10.4 percent of construction services majors pursue a graduate degree.


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Majors with the lowest unemployment rates

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1. Theology and Religion

  • Unemployment: 1.0%

  • Underemployment: 46.9%

  • Median early-career wage: $32,000

  • Median mid-career wage: $49,000

  • Share with graduate degree: 42.2%

Theology and religion majors study the doctrines of different religions from faith-based, historical, and dogmatic perspectives. While some choose to become religion teachers themselves, others pursue careers in social work, ministry, nonprofits, and more. Theology and religion accounts for an extremely small percentage of college majors, with only 9,804 bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2016.

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2. Medical Technicians

  • Unemployment: 1.0%

  • Underemployment: 50.9%

  • Median early-career wage: $42,600

  • Median mid-career wage: $64,000

  • Share with graduate degree: 24.3%

Medical technicians are in high demand and have a projected career growth of 13 percent by 2026. A medical technician major prepares students to collect medical specimens and analyze data in laboratory settings. Coursework is likely to include in immunology, hematology, and chemistry. While only 1 percent of students in this major are unemployed, about half are underemployed.

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3. Early Childhood Education

  • Unemployment: 1.7%

  • Underemployment: 19.2%

  • Median early-career wage: $32,100

  • Median mid-career wage: $41,000

  • Share with graduate degree: 38.2%

Early childhood education majors learn how to become teachers for students under the age of eight. Professionals in this field may work at elementary schools, day care centers, preschools, or other institutions dedicated to educating young students. Despite having a low unemployment rate, the median mid-career wage of $41,000 is the lowest on this list.

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4. General Education

  • Unemployment: 1.7%

  • Underemployment: 22.2%

  • Median early-career wage: $36,000

  • Median mid-career wage: $45,000

  • Share with graduate degree: 47.4%

Unlike the other education majors on this list, general education majors do not focus on a specific age group. The curriculum includes topics related to learning, teaching, and education administration. As a result, general education majors are likely to work as teachers or administrators in public or private schools.

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5. Public Policy and Law

  • Unemployment: 1.7%

  • Underemployment: 62.8%

  • Median early-career wage: $40,000

  • Median mid-career wage: $60,000

  • Share with graduate degree: 44.8%

A major in public policy and law integrates coursework in politics, economics, and sociology to solve different policy issues. Potential career paths include government relations, legal services, nonprofit management, and community development. Despite having an unemployment rate of only 1.7 percent, the underemployment rate of 62.8 percent is the highest on this list.


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6. Elementary Education

  • Unemployment: 1.9%

  • Underemployment: 15.9%

  • Median early-career wage: $35,000

  • Median mid-career wage: $43,000

  • Share with graduate degree: 47.0%

Students who major in elementary education intend to work as teachers for grades K-8. Compared to secondary school teachers, who study education as well as a specific subject like math or English, elementary education teachers complete a broad curriculum encompassing all relevant subjects for their target age group. Despite having lower unemployment and underemployment rates, median wages are lower than the national median for all bachelor’s degrees.

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7. Civil Engineering

  • Unemployment: 1.9%

  • Underemployment: 17.5%

  • Median early-career wage: $60,000

  • Median mid-career wage: $90,000

  • Share with graduate degree: 37.7%

Civil engineering majors are trained to work as engineers for public sector projects such as transportation, resource management, infrastructure, and environmental safety. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for civil engineers is also poised for 11 percent growth by 2026, which is faster than the average growth for all occupations. Civil engineering majors have the highest early-career and mid-career wages on this list.


The data used in this analysis is from a Federal Reserve Bank of New York analysis of U.S. Census Bureau 2016 & 2017 American Community Survey data.

Unemployment and underemployment statistics are for bachelor’s degree holders and above that are between the ages of 22 and 27. The graduate degree share is for individuals between 25 and 65 with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Individuals enrolled in school are not included in the analysis.

To control for educational attainment and hours worked, median wages are for individuals working full-time with a bachelor’s degree only (e.g. they did not yet go on to receive a graduate or professional degree). Early career wages are for individuals between the ages of 22 and 27, whereas mid-career wages are for individuals between the ages of 35 and 45.

Majors were ordered based on their unemployment rates. In the event of a tie, underemployment was considered.

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