Hang in There, Humanities Majors

Inside Higher Ed breaks down a new report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities that comes bearing good news for liberal arts majors.

While it may take a bit longer to find well-paid jobs, by the time they’re (we’re!) in our 50s we make on average more money than people who studied in professional or pre-professional fields. So um, we’ll see who has the last laugh, dentists! In approximately 25 years, when we earn $2,000 more than you:

At peak earning ages (56-60), graduates with a baccalaureate degree in a humanities or social science field are making $40,000 more than they were as recent graduates (21-25). And while in the years following graduation they earn $5,000 less than people with professional or pre-professional degrees, liberal arts majors earn $2,000 more at peak earning ages, when they make about $66,000. (Salaries in both fields still lag behind engineering and math and sciences graduates, who in their late 50s make about $98,000 and $87,000, respectively.)

And STEM wins again. ◔_◔

The study suggests that when choosing a major, you don’t have to choose between making money and learning about stuff you like — though they do just come right out and recommend that liberal arts majors get graduate degrees, which increases their earning potential $20K a year. To that I would say consider the source, Association of American Colleges and Universities.


While making the case that liberal arts graduates are perfectly payable and employable, the report also drives home the fact that there’s one area where humanities and social sciences majors have everyone beat: meeting employers’ desires and expectations.

Employers consistently say they want to hire people who have a broad knowledge base and can work together to solve problems, debate, communicate and think critically, the report notes – all skills that liberal arts programs aggressively, and perhaps uniquely, strive to teach.

“Until somebody proves otherwise, they own the argument about general skill,” Carnevale said.



18 Comments / Post A Comment

samburger (#5,489)

Why does everyone say this is the new every time another study confirms this??? IT IS NOT NEW WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN GREAT

When I picked the mighty humanities in 2008, we knew then that I would probably(statistically) make more mid-career than most of my peers in engineering. They make a lot up front because they’re already job-ready, but they are so narrowly trained that they have less mobility than those of us who shimmy all loosey goosey through the ranks.

Meaghano (#529)

@samburger Ha, yeah a lot of the comments on Inside Higher Ed said the same thing re: how is this new?! I guess it is new to me since I naively never once considered earning potential when I was choosing my major.

moreadventurous (#4,956)


EDaily (#4,396)

Also, the internet has really opened up the job market for Humanities majors. I know tons of English majors who work at tech companies and are making good money. People with tons of venture capital money need people to help them communicate their ideas and visions effectively!

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@EDaily In my experience, within the IT community, the liberal arts majors are usually the tech writers and trainers (obviously a generalisation). The tech writers certainly have higher salaries than poets and magazine writers. However, within the IT industry, the tech writers are at the bottom of the totem pole and it’s difficult to make the jump to higher-paying parts of the industry. It’s also very easy to contract these jobs out to free-lancers.

Liberal arts graduates can also get into the comms or HR parts of an IT company, where they can make more than the tech writers and trainers. The competition for these positions can be intense. Fortunately the positions are well-paid when you get into the management ranks. However, there is a lot of burn-out on the climb up the ladder.

la_di_da (#1,425)

As much as I’m all for this–especially the part where we’re the most useful, flexible people–I am going to do the debbie downer thing and ask about cumulative salary comparisons.

Even if I’m making 2,000 more a year for 10 years, it wouldn’t make up for the fact that I took more time to pay my student loans and didn’t accumulate a lot of savings for 30 years. Someone disprove me. I need hope.

meatcute (#1,430)

@la_di_da I have to wonder the same thing. I won’t dive into the numbers now, but isn’t the beauty of compounding interest such that what we save now (in our 20s and 30s) magically turns into mucho mucho money by the time we want to retire?

I’m one of those humanities majors, and I don’t doubt that my soft skills have made, and will make, me marketable to employers. But I’m skeptical that an extra $2k a year when I’m middle-aged will make up for the big differences now.

samburger (#5,489)

@la_di_da no, you’re pretty spot on.

We DO make more later, but your most powerful earning years are first 10 or so (more time to compound if you’re investing), so we’re still at a disadvantage, especially if we’re wasting our strongest money paying back loans.

The good (terrible…?) news is that most people who do make a lot in their 20s don’t know that it’s the most powerful money they’ll ever make, so they piss it away anyway and we end up all eating cat food in retirement HURRAY

@la_di_da You’re right and a STEM major would tell you it’s the total area under the curve that matters, not the peak income at your peak earning years.

In terms of saving for retirement and paying off student loans, it matters even more to get that extra money early on. And for regular day to day living, an extra $5k on top of $25k makes a much bigger difference than an extra $2k over $66k.

Meaghano (#529)

@forget it i quit Oh yes you’re all totally right. We will probably be putting that extra $2k into our grad school student loans and all the credit card debt we racked up in our early 20’s. Then panicking because we only opened an IRA 10 years ago. But such broad knowledge!

Mae (#1,769)

@la_di_da This is one of the financial conundrums that keeps me up at night. I’m lucky to make enough money to have a few hundred extra dollars each month that I could either use to pay extra on my loans or save for retirement. One of my loans is at 6.8%, so I’ve been using the extra to pay it down, but I wonder if that’s the right choice if I might be able to make more by investing now and reaping more of the benefits of compound interest. At the rate I’m going, I could pay the loan off in a couple of years, but then I’ll be 30 with minimal retirement savings, which is alarming.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@la_di_da yes, you’re right. I also wonder how they calculated the average. If a single liberal arts graduate makes $10,000,000 because she founded a company which went public, it certainly increases the average salary, but misrepresents the results of the other liberal arts graduates in the survey. I’d also be interested in how they selected the survey participants.

garysixpack (#4,263)

“I also wonder how they calculated the average.”

OK, I’ll put on my skeptic hat and explain why this study is bunk.

It’s impossible to look at someone 25 today and figure out what they will make when they are 55. So that’s not what the study did. What the study did was to make calculations based on how today’s 56-60-year olds are doing, and then make claims about 30 years in the future based on these calculations. Now, remember that someone 55 years old now was 25 in 1984. So all the study could really say is, if the 2014 humanities job market looked like the 1984 humanities job market, then humanities majors might make more in 2044.

So is the 1984 job market as unfriendly to humanities majors as it is today? Hah!

BTW, forgetting all that, they based their calculations on *average* salary. You can hide a world of sin with averages. If Bill Gates lived in his own small town with only his 20 servants and gardeners, the average income and net worth of that town would be astronomical and meaningless.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@garysixpack yes, you’re right. The more we look at this study, the more questions there are about it.

On one hand, I’d like for this study to be true. Liberal arts graduates have a terrible time right now and morale is no doubt taking a beating. If even a bogus study helps to make their day brighter, that’s not always a bad thing.

On the other hand, this study just seems counter-intuitive to me. If the graduates do comparatively badly for so much of their careers, why do they suddenly jump higher toward the end of their careers? And even if it’s true, if the difference is only $2k/year, how far behind were they for so long leading up until the end of their careers?

It was disappointing to read that the study suggested going to graduate school in order to solve the problems created as a result of an undergraduate degree. The student ends up in more debt than he or she was before starting graduate school and I don’t see the advantages which compensate for the additional debt. If you can’t get a job as an English graduate, why will a masters degree in English solve that problem?

samburger (#5,489)


Here’s why humanists make more later: We study poetry and feelings for four years, so when we join the workforce, we have literally no real skills. We start in crappy entry-level jobs, sit there for a few years, and then move up to a Skilled Position based on crappy entry-level experience. Once you’re in the Skilled Position, you start making money and you start becoming more mobile.

Engineers, by contrast, are useful immediately upon graduation, so they make, say, 55k/yr immediately. The humanist will make that just as soon as they are useful, but it takes them 7 years to become useful.

samburger (#5,489)

@samburger I should clarify that this was always the Official Explanation for these numbers.

And I don’t know about this study, but the schools I was associated with did report salaries as averages, which was intended to be deceptive, as far as I can tell.

EvanDeSimone (#2,101)

WHEN WILL THEN BE NOW?! Because I am really interseted in aquiring some material possessions.

CaddyFdot (#2,686)

@EvanDeSimone SOON.

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