Does a college degree pay off? Here’s a scary stat: In 2008, the median annual salary of a young adult with a bachelor’s degree working full-time was $46,000. That’s a 6 percent drop from the inflation-adjusted $48,800 salary such workers averaged in 2000. In that same eight-year stretch, the average annual tuition for an undergrad degree shot up 50 percent, to $19,362. The average private-college student could expect to pay even more, with an annual bill topping $30,000.
For grad students, the news is even grimmer. The median salary for those with a master’s degree or higher has steadily dropped over the past decade, while the amount of debt grad students typically take on has moved in the opposite direction. The average master’s degree recipient now starts his career more than $40,000 in the hole.
Those in the “professional” fields, like law and business, have the most to fear. The economics of law school used to be straightforward: Take on six-figure debt and graduate into a six-figure job. But many of the jobs have vanished—leaving only the debt.
The legal industry shed 22,000 jobs over the past year, and white-shoe firms aren’t looking for new staffers to fill those vacated spots. The number of summer associates offered permanent jobs at the firms where they apprenticed went into free fall last summer—and this year, 20 percent fewer firms ran summer programs at all, according to surveys conducted by the National Association for Law Placement, an industry group for recruiters. NALP Executive Director James Leipold openly refers to the classes of 2009–2011 as a “lost generation” that may never be reabsorbed into the big law firms that write the big paychecks.
“More people are taking initial jobs that don’t necessarily require their law degree, and more people are taking temp positions to tide themselves over,” he says.
There are a few bright spots amid the job-market murk. If you’re looking for ROI on your tuition investment, consider engineering. Degrees in mechanical, chemical, and electrical engineering consistently rank at the top of surveys of best-paying entry-level jobs. A straight-out-of-school petroleum engineer with a bachelor’s degree commanded an average starting salary of $93,000 this year, according to data released last week by compensation research firm PayScale.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers, a trade group for college career placement staffers, had similar findings in its survey of job offers to this year’s Class of 2010 graduates. Four engineering disciplines filled out its list of the top-paying majors, plus computer science, which sneaked in at number three (average starting salary: $61,112).
“Those high-starting salary offers reflect the uneven supply and demand that exists for these graduates, even in the current economy,” says NACE executive director Marilyn Mackes. “All of the top five earners are in short supply. Each accounts for less than 1 percent of the degrees granted.”
And if job security is your bottom line, try getting a job keeping track of someone else’s. Accounting services organizations topped the list of employers making the most offers to 2010 grads, according to NACE.