Tough times seem to bring out the academic in all of us: Enrollment at colleges and universities typically booms as students hope that when they graduate, a stronger job market and higher salaries will await. For those matriculating now, the job market is likely to improve by graduation—it could hardly get worse—and their expected salaries depend largely on what kind of degree they’re receiving.

First, the bad news. The demand for new graduates has fallen, thanks to the surplus of freshly laid-off workers. The number of offers dropped 11 percent in spring 2009 compared with the previous year, reports Andrea Koncz, the employment information manager at the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). In the same period the average salary offer fell 2.2 percent (to $48,515).

Nonetheless, the average offer went up for those with certain degrees, such as engineering (up 2.3 percent, to $58,438) and finance (up 2.3 percent, to $49,754). “This is consistent with the average gains we’d see in a typical year,” Koncz says. When the economy is good, she says, salary offers rise more like 4 to 5 percent. In 2008, they were up almost 8 percent.

One of the biggest surprises: Nursing grads saw their starting offers decrease 9.2 percent, to $49,879, possibly because experienced nurses reentered the work force during the economic downturn, thus lowering the demand for new nurses. Other areas remained stagnant, such as education (down 0.8 percent, to $34,084) and the humanities (up 1.2 percent, to $37,990).

Maximizing your payout may mean attending school where the offers are highest. According to NACE’s 2008 regional reports, graduates of Midwestern universities had the greatest advantages in the physical sciences, where their $48,260 average offer was 9.5 percent above the national average, and in agriculture and natural resources ($39,429, 4.6 percent above average). The greatest disadvantage fell to Midwestern graduates with degrees in health sciences ($43,205, 11.9 percent below average) and communications ($33,478, 7.9 percent below average).


Illustration: UNDRCRNT