It is not unusual to read in the media about the occupational hazards of a liberal arts education. Degrees in anthropology and art history, for instance, have recently been singled out as being "questionable" majors by policy makers. The allegation is that liberal arts graduates often find themselves unemployed or underemployed and unable to support themselves, much less a family. Such claims can have profound consequences: students may steer away from liberal arts majors; parents may discourage them from exploring careers in a liberal arts field; college presidents may target liberal arts disciplines for budget cuts; and, policy makers may challenge state and federal investments in these fields.
Is there any evidence to support such an allegation? Liberal arts colleges have not made a strong case for the earning potential of liberal arts graduates. The liberal arts community, in general, tends not to talk about the value of a liberal arts education in economic terms. Even if there was willingness to do so, supporting data are hard to find.
However, evidence has recently emerged. The Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems released a report ("How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths") that will put to rest many myths about the economic return of a liberal arts education. The report, using U.S. Census data from 2010 and 2011, compares career earnings of more than three million college graduates. The majors of those graduates fell into one of four categories: humanities and social sciences (e.g., philosophy, history or sociology), science and math (e.g., chemistry or biology), professional and pre-professional programs (e.g., business or nursing) and engineering.
Some findings from the study were not surprising. Science, math and engineering majors typically had higher salaries throughout their careers than those majoring in humanities, social sciences or professional and pre-professional programs.
Other findings were quite surprising. Humanities and social science graduates actually had low unemployment rates and earned good salaries. In fact, while humanities and social science graduates did start out near the bottom salary level of all college graduates, by the time they were in their mid-fifties (their peak earning years), they were, on average, making more money than those who graduated with professional or pre-professional degrees.
Yet, students and their parents will want to take note of a key finding in the study. About 40 percent of those with a B.A. in humanities or social sciences earned a graduate or professional degree. Advanced degrees increased their earning potential significantly -- about $20,000 annually. Without advanced degrees, humanities and social science graduates consistently earned less than other majors.
Going beyond economics, the study identified skills that employers sought in workers and the type of jobs assumed by humanities and social science majors. The findings strongly reinforced the value of a liberal arts education. Employers want to hire individuals who can collaborate and have a broad knowledge base, an ability to think critically, and strong communication skills. Beyond broad learning and intellectual skills, employers want graduates with field-specific skills and hands-on experience. With this understanding, a well-respected liberal arts college also helps students develop professional skills.
While there is no guarantee that the salary trajectory for future liberal arts graduates will be the same as reported in the study, the best career preparation for an uncertain future may be the very skills and capabilities that a liberal arts education cultivates. Of no less importance, the study revealed that humanities and social science graduates filled one-half of all social service jobs such as counselors and social, human and community service workers. While these professions may not be lucrative, their contribution to maintaining our social fabric is substantial.
And, how do graduates of liberal arts colleges feel about the value of their education? In a study by the Annapolis Group (Albion College is a member of this association), liberal arts graduates reported that they are more satisfied with the education they received than alumni from other types of private and public higher education institutions. They are more likely to rate their overall undergraduate experience as excellent, view their college as highly effective in helping them get their first job or into graduate school, and credit their undergraduate experience as helping them to develop a broad range of important life skills.
Data from these recent studies will likely not put to rest all the myths surrounding liberal arts colleges. However, we now have a solid platform from which we can talk to students, parents, policy makers and the larger higher education community about the real return on investment of a liberal arts education.