U.S. College Grads See Slim-to-Nothing Wage Gains Since Recession

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The bachelor’s degree — long a ticket to middle-class comfort — is losing its luster in the U.S. job market.

Wages for college graduates across many majors have fallen since the 2007-09 recession, according to an unpublished analysis by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington using Census bureau figures. Young job-seekers appear to be the biggest losers.

What you study matters for your salary, the data show. Chemical and computer engineering majors have held down some of the best earnings of at least $60,000 a year for entry level positions since the recession, while business and science graduates’s paychecks have fallen. A biology major at the start of their career earned $31,000 on an annual average in 2015, down $4,000 from five years earlier.

“It has been like this for the past five, six years now,” said Ban Cheah, a research professor at Georgetown who compiled the data. “It’s a little depressing.”

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The outlook for experienced graduates, aged 35 to 54, is brighter, with wages generally stable since the crisis.

The economic premium of a bachelor’s flattened after the recession, according to a 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research paper by Robert Valletta, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Among the factors at play are advances in technology and automation, which are not only taking away U.S. manufacturing jobs, but also having an impact on white collar workers, Valletta found. Legal clerks and researchers are increasingly finding their jobs supplanted by computers, for example.

Some majors are bucking the wage-stagnation trend. An experienced petroleum engineering major earned $179,000 a year on average in 2015, up $46,000 from five years prior, according to the Georgetown analysis. Beyond those with special technical skills, philosophy and public policy majors have also seen their earnings rise.

So how can you boost your career earnings potential? A graduate’s level degree is increasingly offering the bigger salary bump, according to Cheah. The wage gap between graduate degree-holders and undergrads has been growing, he said.

It’s also important to remember that a student’s major is just one determinant of their future earnings potential. The training experience from internships, debt levels and soft skills also help shape salary and job prospects, said Jeff Selingo, who writes about higher education and is a professor of practice at Arizona State University.

“Just getting a degree doesn’t matter anymore,” said Selingo. “What matters more are the undergraduate experiences that you have.”

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