Degrees and Jobs Out of College Don’t Always Agree

"Exhaustive, expensive, and occasionally humiliating" is how Hannah Kane, 22, described job hunting after graduating from the University of Iowa in May 2011 with a bachelor's degree in cinema.

GEICO in Coralville refused to hire her because hiring a less qualified worker would be cheaper, Kane said. This happened time and again, with the same word always thrown at her: "overqualified." "Interviewing at Hy-Vee between high school kids got old fast," Kane said. "It was a good lesson in humility."

Hannah Kane

Living in Iowa City, Kane eventually was hired by Best Buy in Coralville before leaving for jobs at both the Iowa City Public Library and UI Main Library until she can find a job more suited to her field of study.

About 20 percent of college graduates wind up in jobs they could have had without setting foot in college, according to a 2009 analysis by Andrew M. Sum, a Northeastern University economist. Waiting tables, working retail and tending bars are common ways for these college graduates to make ends meet.

Michael Blackmon, 23, graduated from the UI when Kane did. A double major in cinema and English, Blackmon has yet to find a permanent job. He lives in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, unemployed. "I get online and look around where I live and there isn't much there," Blackmon said. "Most of the job searching has just resulted in frustration."

Blackmon has found only temporary work since graduating. He described a two day job where he cleaned air ducts at the UI. What did it have to do with his major?

"Absolutely nothing," said Blackmon, who recently was accepted into the master's program at the University of York in England, where he will continue his English studies.

Michael Blackmon

The struggles of Kane and Blackmon may be related to their chosen majors. The three college majors with the highest unemployment percentages in a 2011 report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce were: clinical psychology (19.5 percent), miscellaneous fine arts (16.2 percent), and U.S. history (15.1 percent).

A 2011 UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences survey differed from the Georgetown report. It showed that all of the radiation science graduates were seeking work upon graduation, for example.

In the survey, the graduates were asked if they had found employment, were continuing education or still seeking. Also high on the list of those seeking were Asian Languages, with 100 percent of those responding still seeking, and aging studies, with one-half of those responding seeking.

The statistics don’t tell a complete story because some graduates declined to respond to the survey. Only 25 percent of the Asian studies graduates responded and only 50 percent of the aging students responded. But all of the radiation science graduates responded. Moreover, the survey, like comparable ones at the University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State University, do not indicate if the employed graduates are in their chosen field of study. Plus, the surveys were taken during the 2010-11 school year.

The degrees with the highest percentage of 2011 UNI graduates still seeking jobs at graduation were public administration, sociology, philosophy/religion and bioinformatics. For public administration, 80 percent of graduates were still seeking, but only 20 percent responded to the survey. For sociology, 50 percent of graduates were still seeking; 73 percent responded. For philosophy/religion, 50 percent still were seeking; 50 percent responded. For bioinformatics, 50 percent still were seeking; 100 percent responded.

The Iowa State University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences survey of its 2011 graduates listed departments instead of degrees. With the exception of some fields of study, in which the small number of graduates can skewer the statistics, it showed close to nine of every 10 graduates in 2011 either working or continuing their education. This is true even in fields such as performing arts, where 12 of the 15 graduates had jobs and one other was continuing with education.

Student responsibility matters

Taren Reker Crow, career services coordinator at Iowa State University, said a student’s major in college has little to do with finding a job. Getting in front of employers does, she said.

"I've had students who are very successful because they've taken advantage of their resources," Crow said of ISU students with degrees in fields with high unemployment rates. Internships, career fairs and leadership positions on campus give students invaluable networking opportunities, Crow said. Less conventional opportunities also are important, she said. "I've had students get jobs just because they struck up random conversations in a restaurant."

Robert Frederick, director of career services at the University of Northern Iowa, echoed many of Crow's points, but emphasized acquiring skills. "When you walk in the door, what are you going to bring?" Frederick said.

Hiring in education has been stagnant but the finance and insurance markets are seeing significant growth, he said.

University role in job prep questioned

George Neumann, an economics professor at the UI, said public universities have too many courses that do little to help students. He also said classes need not be a semester long, mentioning that Stanford University's class catalogue is filled with three-week and four-week courses.

"Someone is going to have to bite the bullet and say, 'If you want to get a degree, these are the skill sets you have to have,'" Neumann said. College majors don't effectively communicate a student's skills, he added.

George Neumann, UI professor of economics

"It's not clear where you would employ a sociologist or English major," Neumann said.

Individual certificates might be a favorable alternative to the traditional major, he said. They would validate a student's demonstrable skill set and be more practical than the typical major.

Neumann said universities should overhaul curricula to focus more on developing skills rather than fulfilling a checklist of educational requirements. He emphasized tailoring curriculum to fit individual goals rather than lumping students into large, general categories.

Openings in Iowa Job Market

Kerry Koonce, communications director for Iowa Workforce Development, said the state is going in a positive direction. "There has been steady growth in the last six months and consumer spending has been going up," Koonce said. "It's the natural rebound of the recession."

Koonce said manufacturing is adding jobs. The job markets in health care and agriculture have been strong but information technology has been stagnant. Information technology departments store, protect, process and retrieve information for large companies.

In March 2012, the last month for which Iowa Workforce Development data are available, Iowa had a 5.2 percent unemployment rate, 3 percentage points lower than the national rate.

Ben Moore is a senior majoring in journalism at the University of Iowa

Meanwhile...

According to FinAid.com, the cost of higher education has become an increasingly heavier burden. The site lists that college tuition tends to increase approximately 8 percent each year, about double overall inflation.