The Value of the Degree

Today’s competitive job market is forcing students to consider the future of their fields

Aug 10, 2011 at 2:06 pm


o one has to tell a college student that the job market is scarce. Now, more than ever, it seems like students are struggling with choosing the “right” degree — one that interests them but will also provide job security and a steady income for a lifetime. Even after making that tough decision, some students still wonder even as graduation approaches: Will the degree be worth the sweat, blood and money that went into it?

There has been considerable media attention lately on the fact that more and more students are attending graduate school after earning bachelor’s degrees. A recent New York Times article called “The Master’s is the New Bachelor’s” underscores the growing trend and suggests that many students are finding it necessary to earn a master’s degree to stand out in a sea of job-hungry graduates.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers has some better news, however. According to its most recent Salary Survey, the average starting salary for bachelor’s degree-holders from this year’s graduating class has risen 4.8 percent from last year. And, yes, salaries rose for Liberal Arts disciplines as well as Engineering and Computer Science.

At the University of Cincinnati, the largest declared major is currently a program called the Center for Exploratory Studies, an undergraduate program for students still deciding which degree to pursue, says Donnie McGovern, the director of CES. While determination to please parents or a significant other can complicate the decision-making process, McGovern also sees plenty of students concerned about the employability a certain degree guarantees.

Complicating such decisions are new degree rankings that take into account such statistics as median starting salary and expected growth (or decline) in number of jobs during the next few years. A recent ranking by The Daily Beast website, titled the “20 Most Useless Degrees,” determined that those studying Journalism, Horticulture, Agriculture, Advertising and Fashion Design should find new interests, pronto.

McGovern has seen students turn their noses up at certain degrees, as well.

“Helping a student understand the value of the Liberal Arts degree can be a little daunting,” McGovern says. “(But) it can lead to literally an infinite number of possibilities.”

So while one might know exactly where he or she will be working after obtaining an Engineering degree, Liberal Arts studies aren’t worthless — on the contrary, they simply have more options to sort through.

Since UC is known as a research school, however, many students are drawn to its ranked colleges such as the college of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP), Engineering and Pharmacy. These are great options, but when people choose them without considering their own abilities and values, they sometimes end up switching majors anyway. In fact, 75 percent of students across the country change their major at least once during their time in college, McGovern says.

According to Thomas Canepa, associate vice president for admissions at UC, there are popular degree choices across the board. The number of students entering undergraduate studies has steadily increased during the past few years at UC, meaning more and more people are going after bachelor’s degrees. The colleges of Arts and Sciences, Business, DAAP, Engineering and Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services offer the most popular degrees, ranging from Pre-Pharmacy to Chemical Engineering to Marketing.

Despite pressure to find a high-paying job and the decreasing employment opportunities since the recession, some students are sticking to their guns.

One such student who followed his heart to the classroom is Ben Dudley. The 24-year-old is approaching his second year as a graduate student in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati.

“I went to a really hard high school, and then I was kind of underwhelmed by how (much easier) undergrad was,” he explains. “I didn’t feel like I was capable — as good as I needed to be — to go off on my own after finishing undergrad. I thought that I needed more work to take myself to a level where I could be successful.”

Dudley took a year off after earning his bachelor’s degree in English Literature before returning to UC for graduate school. While he personally values the education he is receiving, he didn’t feel pressure to earn another degree for employment reasons. He ultimately wants to write — whether it be novels or for films or television.

“I can just tell that my work is a lot better than it was a year ago because of grad school,” Dudley says. “I’m not sure if, in my field, being able to say you have a master’s degree helps at all, but actually getting it does make you better as a writer.”

He acknowledges, however, that the degree will certainly look good on a resume, and attending graduate school has already allowed him the opportunity to teach, giving him a career option to fall back on in the future.

Dudley seems to have a valuable approach when it comes to his education — he genuinely wants to learn and is happy with whatever credentials he picks up along the way.

McGovern stresses a similar attitude toward the exploratory students he advises: “It’s one of those things where you do what you love and money will follow,” he says. “Do what you hate and it might not pan out.”

And, hey, if money doesn’t seem to follow doing what you love, you can always go back for a Ph.D.


tatistics show that today’s students are responding to increasingly competitive post-graduate job markets by diversifying their studies and supplementing their bachelor’s degrees with graduate school. Donnie McGovern, director of the Center for Exploratory Studies at the University of Cincinnati, says despite degree rankings that offer warning for those studying Liberal Arts and other less-technical fields, such degrees offer avenues into more specific studies and other career possibilities.

Nevertheless, rankings such as The Daily Beast website’s “20 most useless degrees,” which is based on starting and median salaries and expected change in number of jobs between 2008-2018, continue to affect students’ choices of study. The following is The Daily Beast’s most recent ranking.

1. Journalism

2. Horticulture

3. Agriculture

4. Advertising

5. Fashion Design

6. Child and Family Studies

7. Music

8. Mechanical Engineering Tech

9. Chemistry

10. Nutrition

11. Human Resources

12. Theater

13. Art History

14. Photography

15. Literature

16. Art

17. Fine Arts

18. Psychology

19. English

20. Animal Science