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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

January 23, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Majoring in liberal arts does pay, eventually

In recent years, lawmakers and pundits alike have seized on the idea that majoring in the liberal arts is a sure route to a low-paying, dead-end job.

Michael Osbun / Op Art

Michael Osbun / Op Art

Everyone seems to have a story about a history major who’s now waiting tables or working as a barista. Major in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — instead, experts advise, because the payoff is much greater.

But what if that’s not true over the long run?

A new report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems examined whether liberal arts majors really do fare poorly over the course of their careers. They found some stereotypes don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Using Census data, researchers looked at liberal arts majors both in the short term and long term and found:

  • When they are at peak earning ages — defined as between 56 and 60 years old — workers who majored in the humanities or social sciences as undergraduates earn about $2,000 more per year than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional careers.
  • The unemployment rate for recent liberal arts graduates is currently 5.2 percent. For liberal arts majors ages 41-50 — in other words, people who have been out of college for quite a while — the unemployment rate is 3.5 percent. That’s just .04 percent higher than those with a professional or pre-professional degree, researchers say.

The report does affirm some widely-held beliefs: Yes, engineering graduates make more than all other degree holders. But college is still worth the price, no matter what the major, as college graduates in all fields see their salaries increase significantly over time, researchers found.

And it’s also true that holders of liberal arts degrees disproportionately pursue social sciences professions, like social work or counseling, the report found.

Dennis Jones, president of NCHEMS, said in a statement that the report “makes a strong case that liberal arts degrees really do prepare their holders for successful careers.

“More importantly,” Jones said, “it reminds us that these degrees are also the primary pathways to careers that society critically needs, but has been unwilling to compensate as well as others.”

Comments | More in News | Topics: higher ed, liberal arts


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