Oregon Labor Market Information System
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Earnings and Employment Status by Field of Bachelor's Degree
by Martin Kraal
Published Jun-24-2013

As the 2012-2013 school year ends, thousands of students in Oregon will graduate with bachelor's degrees. Though a certain percentage will pursue further education, thousands will enter the labor force looking for a job. Unfortunately for these graduates, it's a tough job market. As of April 2013, approximately 150,000 Oregonians were unemployed and looking for work. On a brighter note, bachelor's degree recipients are more likely to be employed and tend to have lower unemployment rates than those with less education. However, employment status and earnings vary by the field of degree.

Employment Status by Educational Attainment and Field of Degree
Based on estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2009-2011 American Community Survey (ACS), of those 25 to 64 years of age with a bachelor's degree or higher in Oregon, approximately 6 percent were unemployed, compared with 14 percent for those with high school diplomas (Graph 1). The average rate for Oregonians with less than a high school diploma was even higher at almost 17 percent.

However, not all bachelor's degrees are equal and just having a bachelor's degree is not a guarantee of landing a job. A few national reports have noted the differences in employment status among degree fields. One report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Hard Times, College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings 2013: Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal, noted that unemployment rates vary by major. Nursing (4.8%) and elementary education (5.0%) majors having the lowest unemployment rates, while information systems (14.7%) and architecture (12.8%) graduates have the highest. A brief from the U.S. Census Bureau, Field of Degree and Earnings by Selected Employment Characteristics: 2011, reported that "people who majored in computers, mathematics, and statistics, or majored in engineering were the most likely to report working full-time, year-round and among the least likely to report that they did not work at all. In contrast, most fields that were classified as arts, humanities, or other had lower rates of full-time, year-round employment."

In Oregon, unemployment rates by field of degree appear to follow national trends. Based on estimates from the 2009-2011 American Community Survey, individuals whose first field of study for their bachelor's degree was health related, such as nursing or medical technology technicians, were more likely to have low rates of unemployment (Graph 2). Individuals with degrees in biological, agricultural, and environmental sciences; psychology; business; education; and engineering also had lower rates of unemployment compared with other degrees. Architecture degree recipients, on the other hand, tended to have higher rates of unemployment, which is likely a result of the recent recession and drop in construction activity over that period.

Graph 1
Graph 2
Unemployment rates in Oregon by field of degree
Earnings by Educational Attainment and Field of Degree
As was the case with employment status, earnings also vary by educational attainment and field of degree. People ages 25 years and over with a bachelor's degree in Oregon had median annual earnings of approximately $41,800, which is approximately 65 percent higher than those with just a high school education (Graph 3). The median earnings for those with some college or an associate's degree were approximately $30,000, and $56,000 for those with a graduate or professional degree.

For people with a bachelor's degree or higher, those who studied engineering, science, computers, or mathematics had higher than average earnings (Graph 4). Business-related degrees, which are one of the most commonly earned degrees in the state, also had above-average earnings. On the other end of the scale, average earnings were lower for people with degrees in education, fine arts, and literature and languages. On the national level, the Census brief Field of Degree and Earnings by Selected Employment Characteristics: 2011, noted a similar pattern where those with a degree in science or engineering fields tended to have higher median earnings than those with degrees in arts, humanities, and other degrees.

The earnings figures in Graph 4, as well as the unemployment rates in Graph 2, are for very broad education categories and there are likely variations in earnings and unemployment rates depending on the specific area in each field. For instance, the average level of pay varies by type of engineer. Civil engineers in Oregon had an average annual pay of $78,400 in 2012 whereas electrical engineers averaged $93,700. Also, the variation in earnings and unemployment rates by field of degree may not be statistically different as the estimates are based on a sample of the population.

Graph 3
Median earning by educational attainment Oregon 2009-2011
Graph 4
Average earnings in the past 12 months by fild or degree in Oregon
Bachelor's Degree Recipients Across Oregon
Lastly, given the variations in employment status and earnings by educational attainment, you might be wondering how educational attainment varies around the state. Statewide, approximately 29 percent of the population ages 25 years and over in Oregon have a bachelor's degree or higher, which is slightly greater than at the national level where 28 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher. However, the rates vary throughout Oregon with metropolitan areas having higher percentages than rural areas.

Benton County has the largest percentage of residents with a bachelor's degree, with approximately 47 percent of its population holding a bachelor's degree or higher. On the other end, Morrow County has the lowest percentage of its population holding a bachelor's degree, at 10.7 percent. The counties in the Portland metro area also have percentages higher than the state and national averages. Though correlation doesn't mean causation, areas in Oregon that have higher shares of the population with bachelor's degrees have also experienced lower unemployment rates and stronger employment growth than areas with lower shares.

Figure 1
Percentage of population 25 years and over with a bachelor's degree or higher
On average, lower unemployment rates and higher median earnings are one benefit of obtaining a bachelor's degree. However, earnings and employment status vary by field of degree. Additionally, with the cost of obtaining a bachelor's degree on the rise, it's increasingly important to consider career options along with other aspects, such as personal interests and skills, when deciding what to study. Also there are several well-paying occupations that do not require a bachelor's degree that could match with a person's skills and interests.