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Choosing a college major is a high-stakes decision. Lists of “best college majors” or “best majors to get a job” offer suggestions for prospective students, but they usually fail to consider one of the biggest risks facing any graduate: underemployment, or winding up in a job that doesn’t require a college degree.

As part of its new report on underemployment, Majors that Matter: Ensuring College Graduates Avoid Underemployment, Burning Glass Technologies has developed an Underemployment Risk Indicator that can be used by students choosing majors, or by educators in program planning. Majors such as fitness, biology, and legal studies that have high underemployment and above-average wage penalties have the highest-risk levels, while the lowest-risk fields are in STEM and other career-focused majors. 

But there are some surprises. Philosophy and English majors, for example, have a lower risk of underemployment than business majors. And while STEM majors generally do better, some STEM fields like biology have high risks. 

Four in 10 recent college graduates are underemployed, defined as being in jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. And a Gallup survey of college students found 34% did not feel prepared for the job market, and nearly half doubt their major will lead to a good job. 

With better information, students could choose majors with more confidence—and admissions officers can find ways to guide students to the right programs. 

The Underemployment Risk Indicator incorporates three factors:  

  • Probability of Underemployment: How likely is a graduate of this major to become underemployed?  
  • Cost of Underemployment: What is the financial cost of underemployment for graduates of this major, as measured by the gap between the salaries of properly employed and underemployed graduates?  
  • Occupational Concentration of Graduates: To what extent does the major have a clear career path for graduates? We examined how many graduates are actually working in the 10 most common occupations in their field. This concentration
    analysis suggests how effective a major is in offering a track into a field.

There are many strategies students can take to improve their chances of getting a good job, even in a high-risk major. There are also many ways educational institutions can build skills into high-risk programs to ensure graduates succeed in the job market. For a full analysis, visit our research section on underemployment. 

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