04 May 2016

An Interesting Thing Happened on the Way to Graduation...

Last year, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign started collecting information on what all its graduating seniors were planning to do next. A few colleges and schools had been collecting such data for a while, but this was the first effort to tap all students on their way out the door to find out what their plans were.

Some of us were sort of dreading the outcome, for all the reasons you might think: our majors have a reputation for having a hard time landing jobs, we've heard the tales of graduates floundering for a few years before landing in a career, we know students who defer job-hunting until finals are over. We wished that the data could be gathered six months after graduation, when our students have had some time to get settled into post-graduate life.

Turns out, we didn't need to worry.  This is what the data looks like:

How about that.

Three caveats here. First, employment data is not broken down by quality of employment, so a student who plans to scoop ice cream all summer while applying for professional jobs looks the same here as the student who is headed directly to a high-paying consulting job.  Second, the respondents may over-represent students with post-graduation plans, as they would be more likely to complete a survey like this than students with no plans. Third, this is the first time we've done this--there are no doubt bugs to be worked out in framing the survey and encouraging full participation.


Looks like an English or literature/cultures/linguistics major is about as employable as an economics, math/statistics, or political science/global studies/area studies major.  The English major is about as likely to still be seeking employment upon graduation as a chemistry major, and less likely to be seeking employment than the earth, society and environment major. English majors are far less likely than psychology majors to be headed directly to graduate school; on the other hand, they have a much higher rate of initial employment.

There is certainly room for us to do better channeling traditional humanities graduates into employment (yes, I see those numbers for history and philosophy vs. communications), but this is hardly the dire picture painted by media outlets and popular wisdom.

Even our own student newspaper, The Daily Ilini, claimed in a recent editorial that "now, it seems an undergraduate degree outside of STEM fields carries hardly any more weight than a high school diploma." The editors go on to argue that "lowering the cost of tuition or the interest rates on loans would allow students to choose their majors unburdened by financial or societal pressures," which is certainly true. The nationwide decline of state support of public universities threatens to turn them into employee-farms for corporations, not institutions that educate citizens for the full range of occupations in a functioning, healthy society.

But please, can we stop telling people that English majors don't get jobs? It's just not true.


  1. What people mean when they say "English majors don't get jobs" is that a degree in English is unlikely to lead to the types of professional/managerial jobs generally associated with college education. Most English majors can type well enough to do like data entry or whatever, but that's not the kind of work people go to college for.

  2. Right. That is what people mean, in many cases. I have yet to see the data that they're right.

    From what I can tell, students who, regardless of major, get some work experience, can describe their skills, and actively seek out the job opportunities they want can obtain "professional/managerial jobs." Students, regardless of major, who drift through college expecting to land in such a job on the basis of their degree alone take longer to get there after graduating.