The survey of the class of 2008, by the National Center for Education Statistics, provides an interesting snapshot of the nation's educated elite following a crushing economic recession: Overall, college grads reported lower unemployment rates compared with the national average, although black and Asian college graduates were twice as likely to be out of work than their white classmates. College grads from private four-year schools earned about the same as those from public four-year schools, about $50,000 a year.
But while a paltry 16 percent of students took home degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, or STEM disciplines, those who did were paid significantly better — averaging $65,000 a year compared with $49,500 of graduates of other degrees.
The findings are based on a survey of 17,110 students conducted in 2012, about four years after the students obtained their bachelor's degrees.
The survey found a strong correlation between earning money and highly specialized degrees. More than 95 percent of grads who studied computer and information sciences, for example, were employed full-time at the time of the survey and earned $72,600 on average. Engineering students reported similar job and salary prospects. That's compared with a humanities graduate who was more likely to report working multiple jobs and earn a full-time salary averaging only $43,100.
The report also pointed to a correlation between being white or Asian and male and having a higher salary.
Asian graduates reported earning more than other ethnicities, averaging $62,500 in full-time jobs compared with $47,300 earned by Hispanics, $48,800 by blacks and $52,400 by whites. Likewise, male grads reported earning more — $57,800 on average — than their female classmates in full-time jobs, who averaged $47,400.
The study doesn't explain the disparities in pay, which could be attributed to different fields of study.
C.N. Le, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said Asian students are gravitating toward career fields in math, science and technology that are initially higher paying, which likely explains the higher average salaries by Asian grads. But they might be facing the higher unemployment rates — almost 12 percent compared with 5.5 percent of white graduates — because of visa issues or policies by American businesses favoring U.S. citizens.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly three-quarters of Asian-American adults were born abroad.
Le said there also is a "glass-ceiling effect" in the math, science and technology fields. "In a lot of cases, STEM jobs have fewer promotion ladders than other positions" in areas like finance or advertising, he said.
Black college grads faced a similar unemployment rate of almost 12 percent, while 8.5 percent of Hispanic grads were out of work, according to the survey. The Education Department doesn't surmise why that might be, although one liberal-leaning research group says racism still plagues minority graduates.
"The Great Recession has been hard on all recent college graduates, but it has been even harder on black recent graduates," concluded the Center for Economic and Policy Research in a study it released last May.
Among other findings in the report:
—The average unemployment rate among the graduates was 6.7 percent, compared with the 8.1 percent national unemployment rate at the time of the survey. Unemployment rates were very low for students who studied computer and information sciences or engineering, but jump for those with degrees in social sciences or general humanities.
—Most graduates avoided marriage and kids in the four years after obtaining a degree. Only 19.6 percent reported having both.
—The average salary of students graduating from for-profit four-year institutions was slightly higher than their nonprofit counterparts: $62,900 compared with $50,700 for public school grads and $53,700 for private school grads. But the unemployment rate among for-profit schools was higher at 12 percent, compared with the 6.2 percent graduating from public schools.
These disparities could be attributed to the types of students who attend for-profit schools. Often highly specialized, for-profit schools often attract students who already have work experience but lost a job or want to earn more money.