Is majoring in the liberal arts a bad economic decision? Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly don’t think so. In their recent study for the Association for American College and Universities (AACU), they show that liberal arts majors enjoy comparable long-term career prospects as students who obtain degrees in more “useful” fields. Students who study the liberal arts do about as well as most college graduates in terms of annual salaries and employment rates. Furthermore, more than 21 percent of liberal arts and humanities graduates work in the top five professions in terms of annual salaries.
The authors also point to recent surveys showing that employers place a high value on the critical thinking and learning skills that the liberal arts cultivates. Eight in ten employers agreed that “all students should acquire broad knowledge in liberal arts and sciences.” In fact, almost 30 percent of employers surveyed said they wanted employees to have a range of knowledge and skills applicable to a wide range of jobs.
Recently, however, liberal arts graduates pay for their brain candy when it comes time to look for a job. Even those who value the liberal arts would have to agree that these are not the best of times for advocating a liberal arts education to the parents and students having to make big decisions investing in college and what to study. The Great Recession exposed the vulnerability of a liberal arts education to a remarkable degree.
The “worthless” image of the liberal arts is not entirely without foundation. Fully 9.4 percent of recent graduates in the liberal arts and humanities (22 to 26 years old) were unemployed during the recession, according to a Georgetown University study last May. The average salary of recent liberal arts graduates was just $31,000. Faring not much better were recent graduates in Biology, nearly 8 percent of whom were unemployed. Like liberal arts majors, the employed biology grads also earned an average of just $31,000.
Another important reason that liberal arts degrees might be considered worthless is that you need a graduate degree to make them less worthless. In fact, graduate degrees make all majors far more useful in the job market. Turns out that if one plans on going to graduate school, studying the liberal arts and sciences as an undergraduate is actually useful. Compared to a 9.4 percent unemployment rate for recent liberal arts graduates, just 3.9 percent of those with graduate degrees in the liberal arts are unemployed, which compares favorably to most other graduate degree majors, including accounting, mathematics, and engineering, according to the Georgetown University study.
Still, the annual earnings for those with advanced degrees in the liberal arts are a comparatively low $65,000. By contrast, an advanced degree in engineering yields an average salary of $106,000, accounting MBA’s earn an average of $90,000, and an advanced degree in math will earn someone about $20,000 a graduate degree in the liberal arts.
Clearly, the Association of American Colleges and Universities and other advocates of a broad liberal education are putting the best face on such economic realities. If one is willing look beyond immediate employment prospects and considerable salary differences, and consider the lifetime value to individuals, employers and communities, then even the most ardent critics would probably concede that the liberal arts aren’t completely worthless.