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Modest good news for college students: An annual survey predicts employers will increase hiring of new 4-year college graduates about 5 percent in the coming year. Demand for graduates with associate degrees is expected to increase more sharply – by about 30 percent compared with last year’s survey – while MBA hiring appears headed for an unexpected decline.

The 42nd annual survey out Thursday from Michigan State University’s College Employment Research Institute collects responses on hiring plans from more than 2,000 U.S. employers. It paints a mixed picture reflecting an improving economy but also uncertainty over whether Congress and the White House will carry the country off the fiscal cliff in January, potentially sending the economy back into recession.

For 4-year college graduates, the report finds employers are looking most actively for business-related majors but demand is also strong for “all majors” – an indication many employers want critical thinking skills that can be developed in many different courses of study. Demand for engineering, accounting and computer science majors appears somewhat softer than in previous years.

As for those with MBAs, survey director Phil Gardner said it appears companies are more willing to fill jobs with bachelor’s-only recipients, who command less salary.

While higher degrees generally translate into higher earnings, there are wide variations across fields of study and careers, and students have to factor debt into the equation if they need to borrow for tuition. According to Georgetown University researchers, roughly 30 percent of associate degree recipients earn more than people with bachelor’s degrees. Those with mere certificates in engineering earn roughly 20 percent more than the average generic bachelor’s degree recipient.

A recent study by the Project on Student Debt found that two-thirds of the college class of 2011 nationally finished school with loan debt, and those who borrowed owed on average $26,600 – up about 5 percent from the class before. Still, most experts insist that while a bachelor’s degree doesn’t necessarily pay off with a first job, it eventually more than does so, in hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional lifetime earnings.

A major part of that is simply staying employed: For those 25 and older, the unemployment rate for those with a college degree is now just 3.8 percent. For those with some college or an associate degree it’s 6.9 percent, and for those with just a high school diploma it’s 8.4 percent.