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Survey: College Students' View of the Future Varies by Major

college graduate looking across field

College presents a continual set of trade-offs for students. Do they go into a pragmatic major where they're nearly 100 percent confident they'll get a job right out of college, or one that may be less hard-edged but where they have less than a 50 percent chance of working in their field? Do they choose a degree for the earning opportunities it represents or because they'll be making a difference? Is the glass that represents the outlook for the future of the country half-full or half-empty?

Cengage's latest "Student Opportunity Index" highlighted some of these dilemmas. While students were fairly bullish about their chances of finding work out of school, the degree of their optimism varied by major. While 93 percent reported that they expected to find a job related to their educational background within six months of graduation, business students were the most confident (97 percent) and the humanities & social science students were the least confident (86 percent). The reality was that just 60 percent of graduates went on to work in a position tied to their educational background; healthcare workers were the most likely to do so (69 percent) and humanities & social sciences students were the least likely (46 percent).

The index measured the "opportunity environment" for graduates in 17 areas, using various public data and a survey of 2,500 recent and upcoming graduates. The survey was conducted by Wakefield Research for Cengage, querying 2,500 recent or near college graduates earlier this year, with fairly equal groupings in the biggest majors: 1) business, 2) biological and biomedical sciences, 3) health professions and related programs, 4) humanities & social sciences and 5) all other STEM subjects.

The index found that students had to choose between financial prospects and non-monetary rewards. While business majors were more likely to have jobs that balanced work-life pressures (31 percent), they also said that they expected more opportunity for growth in their careers (29 percent) versus opportunities to "make a difference in people's lives" (16 percent). Students in healthcare and the humanities & social sciences were more likely to work in jobs where they felt they were making a difference (32 percent and 31 percent, respectively) but had fewer growth opportunities (18 percent and 16 percent). Just over half (51 percent) of those humanities & social sciences majors said they were confident in meeting their salary goals compared to three-quarters of STEM majors who said the same.

While total student loan debt has risen every year since 2004, some majors have felt the impact more than others. The survey found that healthcare majors were most likely to graduate with no debt (63 percent), and biosciences majors were more likely to face higher amounts of debt ($30,000-plus), compared to a national average of $18,623.

Across the board, those with loan debt were more like to consider the economic outlook "positive" (57 percent) compared to those without debt (38 percent). And while half of STEM majors think the country is headed in the right direction, just a quarter (24 percent) of humanities & social sciences majors agreed. The latter group also expressed the most negative outlook; just 51 percent said they think they will be better off than their parents.

As a whole, 36 percent of respondents said they believe the country is "heading in the right direction." However, while 49 percent of U.S. males agreed with that, just 29 percent of females did. And while 68 percent of Republicans were upbeat about the country's direction, only 18 percent of Democrats were.

"It's important that students understand how the decisions they make now may impact their lives long after graduation, such as how much debt to take on and job prospects," said Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage, in a statement. "While the index shows humanities majors feel more uncertainty about their futures than other majors, the liberal arts cultivates skills like critical thinking and effective communication. These soft skills or uniquely human skills are key to workplace success, and graduates who demonstrate strength in this area will have an advantage."

The full results of the survey are available with registration through the Cengage website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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