WASHINGTON • The bachelor's degree - long a ticket to middle-class comfort - is losing its lustre in the US job market. Wages for college graduates across many majors have fallen since the 2007-2009 recession, according to an unpublished analysis by the Georgetown University Centre on Education and the Workforce in Washington using Census Bureau figures.
Young job-seekers appear to be the biggest losers. What you study matters for your salary, the data shows. Chemical and computer engineering majors have held down some of the best earnings of at least US$60,000 (S$84,000) a year for entry-level positions since the recession, while business and science graduates' pay cheques have fallen. A biology major at the start of his career earned US$31,000 annually on average in 2015, down US$4,000 from five years earlier.
"It has been like this for the past five, six years now," said Georgetown's research professor Ban Cheah, who compiled the data. "It's a little depressing."
The outlook for experienced graduates aged 35 to 54 is brighter, with wages generally stable since the crisis.The economic premium of a bachelor's degree flattened after the recession, according to a 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research paper by economist Robert Valletta at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
MORE THAN JUST A DEGREE
Just getting a degree doesn't matter anymore. What matters more are the undergraduate experiences that you have.
PROFESSOR JEFF SELINGO, who writes about higher education and is a professor of practice at Arizona State University.
Among the factors at play are advances in technology and automation, which are not only taking away US manufacturing jobs, but also having an impact on white-collar workers, Dr Valletta found. Legal clerks and researchers are increasingly finding their jobs supplanted by computers, for example.
Some majors are bucking the wage stagnation trend. An experienced petroleum engineering major earned US$179,000 a year on average in 2015, up US$46,000 from five years prior, the Georgetown analysis shows. Beyond those with special technical skills, philosophy and public policy majors have also seen their earnings rise.
So how can you boost your earnings potential? A graduate-level degree is increasingly offering the bigger salary bump, according to Mr Cheah. The wage gap between postgraduate degree and bachelor's degree holders has been growing.
It is also important to remember that a student's major is just one determinant of his future earnings potential. The training experience from internships, debt levels and soft skills also help shape salary and job prospects, said Arizona State University's professor of practice Jeff Selingo, who also writes about education. "Just getting a degree doesn't matter anymore," he added. "What matters more are the undergraduate experiences that you have."