1 The Earning Potential of a Liberal Arts Degree | The Billfold

The Earning Potential of a Liberal Arts Degree

Okay, so a few things about this tweet from The Chronicle of Higher Education that has been making the rounds:

• Where is the data from? Who knows—the article related to this chart is behind a paywall.

• Median wage at age 36 for liberal-arts degree holders is higher than the median household income of $53,891 in June of this year (household income being the combined income of anyone over the age of 15 and earning money, as measured by the U.S. government).

• If I showed this chart to my parents they’d shrug and say, “So? Why are you showing us a chart when you should be showing us a paycheck?” (And who could argue with that.)

For better context, try this report and chart from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce on the worth of a college major:


Planet Money re-ran a podcast episode last week called, “What’s Your Major?” which examined the idea that students are often more focused on what school they want to go to rather than what they will major in, and nothing is stopping a student attending a state school from earning a desirable salary upon graduation if she chose the right major (though they acknowledge the power of the Ivies, and that an English major at Harvard can go on to be an investment banker and earn tons of money if she wants simply through the power of the Ivy League name and making the right connections).

The Planet Money reporters spoke to a student who studied psychology and worked service jobs until landing a job doing counseling and social work and posed the following question to him: What if your college’s course catalog listed each major and included data showing expected median earnings for graduates? Would that have had an effect on how you chose your major?

“It still wouldn’t have,” he said. “I came to this school knowing where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily know the road and how to get there and the steps that I’d have to take, but nothing can turn me away from counseling. Honestly, I don’t mind the money—it’s more of a fulfilling thing for me.”

This is a good thing, of course, because if everyone was focused solely on the question of earnings, we wouldn’t have social workers or teachers or public service workers dedicated to make our communities a better place.

And what if you were a liberal arts major who did mind the money?

I had tiger parents who were constantly badgering me into pursuing medicine or law—career paths where I could, well, show them a paycheck. And I was actually on the law school track until a professor—who had Pulitzer!—convinced me I should try reporting instead. My mother, literally, cried.

Neither of us could see the financial crisis coming, nor know that the legal job market would slow so dramatically. Too many lawyers, not enough jobs (this could happen to anyone—even you STEM majors!).

Nor could we foresee a future where I’d go from earning less than $30K working in public radio to earning more than twice that at one tech company after another (and as a writer no less!). And if you were to tell me, back then as a newly minted graduate, that I’d be attending a one-week, all expenses paid trip where among other things, I’d be learning how to code, I would have responded, “Who, me?” And yet, that is what I’ll be doing next month.

My point being that if your parents are upset by your liberal arts degree, instead of showing them that Chronicle chart, you can show them this post and remind them that you were hard-working and capable enough to get yourself into college and earn a degree, and that you’re capable of figuring it out and earning a decent salary too; that you’re capable of becoming an engineer if you want to; that you can go work for a tech company if you want to and maybe help change its sexist culture because you read Jane Eyre in one of your liberal arts classes and had serious, thoughtful discussions about proto-feminism, class systems, and women and labor. And then you can send them a copy of your pay stub, or a photo of you and the class of students you’re teaching, or you can shrug and say, “hey, it’s my life.”


16 Comments / Post A Comment

chickpeas akimbo (#6,745)

Mike — the listed source for this data is:

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

(There’s no further text/article at the link — just the chart and that credit line.)

andnowlights (#2,902)

@chickpeas akimbo Yeah, seconded. Though… I mean, the Chronicle is kind of the gossip rag of higher ed. No one I know in academia actually takes it that seriously.

Meaghano (#529)

“Why are you showing us a chart when you should be showing us a paycheck?” HA.

Whenever I see this sort of earnings / degree breakdown, I always wonder if the data implies that “field of study” == “field of employment”. Are those liberal-arts degree-holders actually employed in their field of study or are they political-science majors who now do so much programming work that they reflexively use “==” to indicate equality, cough cough?

Time for a deep dive into the Census Bureau data!

Goodie (#5,447)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose thats a good point.

@Gef the Talking Mongoose : I fucking love the Census Bureau. Mike, here is your new starting point for a followup article.


(spoiler : Among full-time workers whose highest attainment is a bachelor’s degree, liberal-arts majors who get science jobs make about $400,000 more on average over the course of their lives than those who got arts-and-media-related jobs. That’s roughly 17% more, which is pretty impressive. As always, see the raw data for interesting caveats.)

Mike Dang (#2)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose That’s great! One of the things I was trying to say is that liberal arts majors get a lot of grief for studying something “impractical,” but it’s not a limiting degree—they can go on to work in plenty of fields.

@Mike Dang : It appears that way. A couple of additional points related to this dataset :

1. The people represented in this data all have “terminal” bachelor’s degrees — ie, that’s their highest level of educational achievement — so we weed out liberal-arts majors who went on to be lawyers or doctors (the Census Bureau classifies these as “professional degrees”). As one might expect, liberal-arts majors close the lifetime-earnings gap between themselves and engineering majors as soon as they achieve one of these professional degrees, mostly because physicians and surgeons make serious $$$, regardless of their undergrad background. Oddly, engineers appear to make way more money as lawyers than do liberal-arts majors. ( see https://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/education/data/acs/infographics/liberal.html and https://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/education/data/acs/infographics/engineering.html for some nice visualizations )

2. A career in education is the great leveler. No matter your undergrad major, if you have a terminal bachelor’s and your career path is in education, your choice of major makes virtually no difference in lifetime earnings.

@Mike Dang : It looks like my link-ful comments are stuck in approval hell or something, but anyway, there’s lots of useful data on the Census Bureau site.

They’re very good about publishing interesting digests of their datasets; there’s an item just up that surveys the careers of STEM graduates — as it turns out, 74% (!!!) of STEM graduates are working in non-STEM fields. The paper and associated visualization are really well-done.

cjm (#3,397)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose In re: Engineer Lawyers making more–> There is lots of law about building stuff and making stuff, and technology. There are PLENTY of lawyers who know about people, relationships, and liberal arts, philosophy, culture, etc. but fewer who know about engineer-y stuff. High demand, low supply = High price. I

aetataureate (#1,310)

Ahhh, mathematically unsound AND unethical journalism! The worst combination.

Notably, neither “side” includes most of STEM. I imagine the hordes of unemployed lawyers and underemployed librarians are weighing down the Professional/Pre-Professional.

Goodie (#5,447)

$53891 seems like a low median household income. Though as I don’t live in the usa and have never worked there it maybe isnt.

But even that figure compared to what it says the average earning is for these fields makes it seem low as well. Though I suppose since not everyone has a college degree it does make sense.

Theestablishment (#7,469)

I buy the notion that liberal art degrees aren’t necessarily career ‘death sentences’ since graduates have the option of pursuing jobs both in and out of their field of study. The degrees aren’t really limiting, but there’s likely a lesser chance that they’ll provide a specific advantage outside of the area of study.

That’s the rub for most parents – it’s really the question of certainty. While the top students in any field will likely find a path forward after school, the path for those in more specific study areas can likely be considered a bit less risky.

Looking at averages or standard deviations instead of median would help play this out (I’d be surprised if the professional areas didn’t have a tighter grouping around the mean/median), as would looking at the % of students getting jobs post-graduation for professional vs. non-professional fields.

@Theestablishment : The other side of this is that 74% of those with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field are not employed in STEM fields.* That means actively employed in non-STEM fields, not unemployed. ;)

Additionally, when people with terminal STEM bachelor’s degrees go into other fields, they don’t appear to outearn employees in the same field with non-STEM terminal bachelor’s degrees.** For my own curiosity, I may spend some time crunching the datasets for professional and doctorate degree-holders, to see if there’s any additional earning by either group when going cross-discipline with a post-undergrad degree.

* Per the Census Bureau’s 2012 statistics : https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/employment_occupations/cb14-130.html
Here is a nice visualization of the data :

** https://www.census.gov/dataviz/visualizations/056/

Theestablishment (#7,469)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose The other thing to consider is that not all STEM categories are created equal. If you exclude for psychology, social science, and other less ‘technical’ categories in the census data (which one could argue are just as theoretical as any liberal arts field), then that employment rate looks to jump to closer to 50% in field.

Same issue for many less technical areas, an advanced degree is almost a pre-requisite to actually working in those fields (I know more than my share of undergrad psychology majors who got burned by this fact).

Also, don’t forget that STEM isn’t the only choice for non-liberal arts majors. Looks like a very high proportion of business majors end up in business related fields. In certain respects, you can think of those degrees (accounting & finance especially) as professional vocational programs.

Maybe not what many would consider to be a really robust use of time spent in college, but definitely something that can put a parent’s hearts at ease.

andnowlights (#2,902)

I’ve been out of college 6 years and regret doing a liberal arts major pretty much every day. That being said, I also had NO idea what I wanted to do while I was in college, I just knew that I struggled with school, especially math, so I avoided the hard stuff at all costs (I am the WORST student).

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