If you haven’t already, I definitely recommend playing around with the Wall Street Journal’s interactive table that shows various people with various major’s are doing in the Great Recession. They have some interesting information, including major field, unemployment rate, median earnings, and major popularity. If you’re like me, after you play with it for awhile you’ll start to wonder about how the various measures are related. In particular, how is the popularity of a major related to the unemployment rate for people with major. One might think that majors with low unemployment rate would be popular, and those with high rates would be unpopular.

The first scatter plot below shows there is not much of a relationship between popularity and unemployment:

A local polynomial graph provides further evidence that the two are not related:

A few caveats are in order. This is not unemployment for recent graduates, and does not appear to be popularity based on recent graduates, but rather the average of both across the population. Given this, one could imagine how a major’s popularity might reflect an oversupply of people in that field, which could cause a high unemployment rate. Another problem is that this analysis does not control for graduate degrees.

Among the 100 most popular majors there doesn’t appear to be a relationship, but it does look like the least popular majors enjoy have somewhat higher earnings. Is this the boredom wage premium?

In order to see if school’s are directing kids into the right majors, you would ideally want to look at current popularity and unemployment of recent graduates. Although one could make the case that you do want to look at average unemployment and earnings over the population, since that might better reflect average expected lifetime outcomes. All in all it’s interesting to look at the data, and they certainly suggest that popularity of a major is not driven by labor market outcomes, but I’d want to see more analysis before I concluded anything with a high degree of confidence.

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