Category Archives: education

2010’s Worst Paying College Degrees Ten Years Later

In 2010, U.S. compensation and data software firm Payscale identified the 10 lowest paying college degrees for those starting their first jobs in their fields after graduation. We wondered how on the mark that list was, so we tapped Payscale's 2020 data for starting wages by college major to see if things got relatively better or worse for today's graduates in those fields.

The results are shown in the following chart. The original 2010 data is shown in blue and the newer 2020 data is shown in green. In between, in orange, we've adjusted the 2010 starting salary data for inflation to be in terms of 2020 U.S. dollars to make those older salaries directly comparable to the actual starting pay for graduates in the listed fields in 2020.

Starting Pay for 2010's Worst Paying College Degrees

After adjusting for inflation, we see only two degrees where the actual starting pay for graduates in 2020 is ahead of 2010's inflation-adjusted level: Athletic Training and Elementary Education. Horticulture comes close to breaking even, so to speak, and the remaining fields would appear to have become even less rewarding.

Of these less rewarding degrees, Culinary Arts presents the biggest gap between 2010's inflation adjusted pay and 2020's actual starting pay, followed by Special Eduation and Paralegal Studies.

In 2010, Payscale also indicated what an individual holding these degrees could expect to make at a mid-career point, some 10 or more years after graduation. Since it's 10 years later, we thought it would be especially interesting to see how 2020's actual mid-career pay compares with 2010's inflation-adjusted mid-career pay. Our results are shown in the next chart:

Mid-Career Pay for 2010's Worst Paying College Degrees

Once again, the fields of Culinary Arts and Athletic Training come out the furthest ahead after accounting for inflation, but Theology graduates also gained more income than would have been expected based on 2010's inflation-adjusted pay.

Most the other fields saw their 2010 graduates making something within a several percent of their 2010 peers' inflation adjusted pay, with one big exception, which looks like it is in error.

According to Payscale's 2020 survey data, individuals holding degrees in Special Education with 10 or more years of experience saw the average mid-career pay in their field collapse. At $54,500, it is just $700 higher than 2010's non-inflation adjusted pay, some $9,800 below what adjusting the mid-career income for 2010 would predict.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates the median pay for Special Education teachers was $61,420 per year in 2019, which is more in line with Payscale's 2010 inflation-adjusted mid-career income figure.

We sampled other income data for other fields, which appears to be in line with Payscale's surveyed reults, so the 2020 mid-career pay figure for Special Education degree holders appears to be an outlier.

Overall, it appears most of 2010's lowest paying degrees for college graduates turned out to be as bad for pay 10 years later as 2010's data suggested they would be.

Going Back to School with COVID-19

What effect does going back to school have on the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus infections?

The possible answers to that question have greatly concerned many parents and policymakers around the world. To find out the possible effect, we've turned to data from the state of Arizona where a combination of demographic data from the state's Department of Health Services and its three major public universities provides a window into seeing what that effect might be.

Arizona's universities started their Fall 2020 sessions by delivering course content online in August, but began providing either hybrid or traditional classroom instruction at their campuses in late-August or early September. Since we're mainly interested in how returning to the classroom might affect the spread of COVID-19 among the student age population, we looked at the total number of positive coronavirus tests reported for the Age 0 to 44 population across the state and just by Arizona State University (ASU), the University of Arizona (UA), and Northern Arizona University (NAU) at two points in time: 3 September 2020 and 18 September 2020.

We've presented the results of that exercise in the following chart showing the change in the number of coronavirus cases in the between these two points in time, where we find a mixed picture. Please click here to access a full-size version of the chart. [Update 26 September 2020: We identified an error in our original presentation that undercounted the number of cases in the Age 0-19 portion of the population. The original chart we presented is here, the following chart has been corrected. corrections in our analysis below are indicated with boldface font.]

Corrected - Back to School In Arizona: Change in Number of Reported COVID-19 Positive Test Results for Age 0-44 Age Group Between 3 September 2020 and 18 September 2020

Between 3 September 2020 and 18 September 2020, the total number of positive test results reported by Arizona's Department of Health Services increased by 6,568. Of this figure, 37% of the reported increase in cases originated at Arizona's three major public universities. The other 63% represents the total increase in cases reported in the state for its entire Age 0 to 44 population.

Here is the breakdown for the three public universities:

  • Arizona State University: 627 cases (10%)
  • Univerisity of Arizona: 1,554 cases (24%)
  • Northern Arizona University: 273 cases (4%)

The University of Arizona's high case count stands out because it is utilizing rapid antigen tests, which differ from the established COVID-19 tests performed at the other universities and at testing sites across the state. After long excluding results from these tests in its daily reported case counts, Arizona's DHS began including results from antigen tests in its statewide tallies on 17 September 2020. UA's antigen test results have had issues with false positives.

The reported data is limited because it is silent about where an individual with a positive COVID-19 test result may have been exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. For example, a student's exposure to the viral infection may have taken place in a classroom, a campus facility, a dorm, or even off campus. We should also note that the positive COVID-19 results for university students, faculty and staff members may also include individuals older than Age 44.

That's why breaking out data for a university's faculty and staff may be valuable, since the incidence of cases would come primarily through contact in classroom and on-campus facilities. Here, data from ASU indicates that students account for 99% of the reported cases, while faculty and staff account for just 1% of the new cases reported in our period of interest. Data going back to 1 August 2020 indicates 2% of all ASU's reported cases have been among faculty and staff members.

All these institutions are operating with classes set up to minimize the potential spread of coronavirus infections. The exceptionally low number of new positive test results among faculty and staff suggest those approaches are effective at protecting the health of older individuals who are much more at risk of health complications from COVID-19 than the student-age population, who make up the vast majority of infections on campus.

For all the testing the universities are doing, two of the three are reporting comparatively low test positivity rates, consistent with levels indicating the spread of coronavirus infections is manageable. Both ASU and NAU report their cases are below a 5% threshold.

By contrast, UA reports a 15.5% rate from its antigen tests, prompting the university to tell students on 14 September 2020 to "shelter-in-place" for two weeks. The action is expected to bring the spread of infections back down to manageable levels.

Meanwhile, falling rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations are continuing to be reported for the state. The Age 0-44 demographic is also the least likely to experience health complications from the viral infection requiring admission to hospitals, which may account for why these numbers have not been rising.

Perhaps the most significant factor behind the pattern we see in the incidence of COVID-19 infections at Arizona's major college campuses is whether or not its local community has already had significant numbers of cases. Arizona became a hotbed for infections during June 2020 and peaked in July 2020, with over 60% of its reported concentrated in the Phoenix metropolitan area (where ASU is located). Meanwhile, the Tucson metro area (the home of UA) had a moderate number of cases and greater Flagstaff (home to NAU) had has relatively low numbers.

As we've previously observed, COVID is very much a geographic phenomenon, tending to spread most where it hasn't previously been in great numbers, where local herd immunity hasn't developed. We suspect that dynamic lies behind the high number of cases at UA in Tucson now being recorded, and we fear NAU in Flagstaff may have a surge in cases in its future.

The patterns we've described for Arizona would seem to have direct bearing on the "going back to school" season for college students in other states. Dave Tufte describes what he's observing with a marked surge in COVID-19 cases now taking place in Utah. Looking over the state's data, we think the sharp increase in number of new coronavirus infections in the state may be tied to an initial exposure event coinciding with the late start of classes at Brigham Young University, which was then amplified and spread to students' home towns during the Labor Day holiday weekend a week later. Like Arizona's UA outbreak, it seems to be spreading in areas that haven't previously seen high levels of infections.

That still leaves us with one big question needing more information to be answered. Do high numbers of cases among college students take place in places that have already experienced high epidemic numbers? Arizona's data hints the answer is no, but the sample size of universities running in-person classes across the country is still pretty small.


We've used contemporary news reports to compile the COVID-19 data for the universities, and Arizona's DHS COVID-data dashboard for the state's overall figures for the Age 0-44 population.

Arizona Department of Health Services. COVID-19 Data Dashboard. [Online Application/Database]. Accessed 19 September 2020.

Eltohamy, Farah. University of Arizona reports new daily high for positive COVID-19 tests. AZCentral. [Online Article]. 3 September 2020.

Hansen, Piper J and Myscow, Wyatt. There are 983 positive coronavirus cases within the ASU community. State Press. [Online Article]. 3 September 2020.

Ackley, Madeline. ASU has 112 new COVID-19 cases in past 3 days, whil UA has 678. AZCentral. [Online Article]. 18 September 2020.

Northern Arizona University. Coronavirus updates and resources. [Online Article]. Accessed 18 September 2020.

6/5/20: H1B Visas and Local Wages: Undercutting Human Capital Returns

The Economic Policy Institute published an interesting piece of research on the links between H1B visas and lower wages paid by the U.S. employers for key skills: As far as I can see, the report does not cover academic faculty employment, but it does cover data from universities and other non-profits.

The report is worth reading.

Intuition for Understanding Fractions

If you were to ask an adult to pick the point where their education in math started to go off the rails, more often than not, they will identify the point where fractions made their first appearance, often around the fifth grade.

In the image below, we see how one fifth grade student in Maryland ran into some trouble describing why the given fractions and mixed numbers should be put in the order they put them, even though they got that part of the answer correct.

School Improvement in Maryland - Grade 5 Mathematics - Sample Student Responses - Source:

Meanwhile, if you were to ask when they began to find doing math hard, they will probably identify the point in time where instead of equals signs, they started seeing inequality symbols, which comes after fractions are introduced, where the combination with fractions can prove to be pretty problematic, if not outright traumatic.

The good news is that it's never too late to develop the intuition that applies to both concepts, if we draw on the wisdom of renown maths professor Israel Gelfand, as conveyed by Edward Frenkel in Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality:

"People think they don’t understand math, but it’s all about how you explain it to them. If you ask a drunkard what number is larger, 2/3 or 3/5, he won’t be able to tell you. But if you rephrase the question: what is better, 2 bottles of vodka for 3 people or 3 bottles of vodka for 5 people, he will tell you right away: 2 bottles for 3 people, of course."

 - Israel Gelfand

That might work for adults, but if you're dealing with kids, the same insight still works if you substitute the vodka with cookies. Which if you think about it, can open the door for algebra for the adult student if you can get them to make that abstract connection....