Why critics are wrong about liberal arts degrees

November 13, 2015, 11:00 AM UTC
Study Time
A student sits, with her feet on the chair next to her, in a crowded library on the campus of Smith College and reads from a book while studying, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1948. (Photo by Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Photograph by Peter Stackpole — The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

For the last time: No, earning a degree in English, philosophy, art history, name-your-humanities-discipline will not condemn you to a lifetime of unemployment and poverty.

Actually, this is probably not the last time I will write some version of those words. It’s certainly not the first time I have written them. (See, for instance, the lede from another blog post I wrote almost exactly a year ago: “Good news for recent graduates who majored in the arts or humanities: you are not doomed to a lifetime of poverty and unemployment.”)

But I feel compelled to keep writing these words because, in the face of all evidence, the myth of the unemployed humanities major persists. It may be more prevalent than ever: Florida Senator Marco Rubio has made snarky remarks about the job market for philosophy majors a trademark of his campaign speeches for the Republican presidential nomination.

Humanities majors have skills

But persistent or not, the myth of the unemployed humanities major is just that: a myth, and an easily disproven one at that. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has been tracking differences in the employment of graduates from various disciplines for years, demonstrating that all graduates see spikes and troughs in their employment prospects with the changing economy. And AAC&U’s employer surveys confirm, year after year, that the skills employers value most in the new graduates they hire are not technical, job-specific skills, but written and oral communication, problem solving, and critical thinking—exactly the sort of “soft skills” humanities majors tend to excel in.

Perhaps the most comprehensive data source in this vein is the aptly named Humanities Indicators project. Researched and curated by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Humanities Indicators aim to “provide a nonpartisan, objective picture of how the humanities are faring in the United States today.” The collected data span everything from salary distributions to teacher credentials to museum attendance, but for now, let’s just look at the employment numbers—which, as it happens, have just been updated based on the latest available information.

In 2013, the unemployment rate for Americans whose terminal degree was a bachelor’s degree in a humanities discipline was 5.4 percent. That is slightly higher than the 4.6 percent unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders across all disciplines that year. But it’s significantly lower than the 9 percent unemployment rate for those with only a high school diploma or equivalent. Humanities graduates may have a slightly harder time finding jobs than their colleagues in the health sciences, but they are still much more likely to find work than those with no college degree.

Yes, they earn more than high school grads

Salary distributions tell a similar story. The median salary for those with a terminal bachelor’s degree in the humanities was $50,000 in 2013—a little lower than the median salary for all bachelor’s degree holders ($57,000), but still much higher than the median salary for those with just a high school diploma ($35,000). These findings echo those detailed in How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths, published last year by AAC&U and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. The report shows that humanities and social science graduates earn only slightly less than their peers with degrees in professional fields upon graduation from college, and by mid-career the earnings of humanities and social science graduates surpass those of graduates with professional degrees. Humanities majors are also more likely to go on to earn graduate degrees, a move which takes their median annual salary up to $71,000. All told, it’s hard to see a degree in the humanities as a bad investment.

But what about those engineers?

It’s also worth pointing out that humanities graduates experience more equitable employment outcomes along gender lines than graduates from other fields, especially engineering, and especially at the graduate level. Women with graduate degrees in the humanities do experience slightly higher unemployment than their male colleagues—3.5 percent versus 3.4 percent. But those women still fare better than women with graduate degrees in engineering, who experience 3.6 percent unemployment, compared with 2.5 percent for men.

I should stress that my point is not that prospective students should major in humanities fields rather than, say, engineering—I have no wish to erase the real differences that exist among all of these disciplines or pit them against each other in any way. When you read the news and see the vast array of scientific, political, and cultural challenges facing the United States today, it becomes pretty clear that we need more and better-educated college graduates in every discipline, and we need all those graduates to be equipped with a broad base of knowledge and intellectual skills that cut across disciplines.

We need policymakers who understand both the science of climate change and the history of the Middle East; we need medical practitioners who can communicate clearly and sensitively with a general public that is ethnically, economically, and religiously diverse. Such breadth of knowledge and ability will be crucial for the continued functioning of the US economy and, just as important, for a healthy civil society and peaceful relations with the rest of the world.

All of which is to say, we need people studying the humanities, just like we need people studying every other discipline. It’s up to individual students to choose their own educational pathways and majors according to their interests, abilities, and yes, their employment prospects. But they should do so based on accurate information, not myths.

Wilson Peden is the senior writer and digital content editor at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a national higher education membership association concerned with the quality, vitality, and public standing of undergraduate liberal education.