In the realm of career earnings, the liberal arts get a bad rap. They don't deserve it.
Last month, thousands of high-school students got the happy news that they’ve been admitted to the University of Colorado Boulder. Many will major in the sciences or engineering, even if their passions lie in, say, history or philosophy. They must do this for the sake of their careers, conventional wisdom says.
Conventional wisdom is wrong, but it has changed the face of higher education and will change the complexion of the workforce.
Since the great recession, the number of college students nationwide majoring in history and English, two staples of the humanities, has plunged nearly by half. The number of students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math—or STEM—has soared.
Public opinion drives this trend, but the data do not.
Nationwide, people with college degrees—regardless of whether those degrees were in the arts and humanities, social sciences or natural sciences—enjoy consistently lower rates of unemployment than the rest of the workforce.
True, students who major in scientific, technological or engineering fields tend to earn higher salaries. But it's a different story to compare those who major in professional or pre-professional degrees with those with liberal arts degrees. When they reach their 50s and 60s, former students who majored in the social sciences or arts and humanities earned more, on average, than their peers who majored in professional or pre-professional fields, research from the Association of American Colleges and Universities concluded in 2014.
Those results mirror an exhaustive study of alumni who graduated from the CU Boulder College of Arts and Sciences in the last three decades. The research, conducted by Emsi Alumni Insight, surveyed more than 25,000 alumni who graduated with bachelor’s degrees between 1989 and 2018 and calculated their average salary in 2018 as follows:
- $79,626: arts and humanities alumni
- $78,065: social sciences alumni
- $80,796: natural sciences alumni
By comparison, median household income in Colorado was $62,520 in 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.
A liberal arts education—one that exposes students to the breadth of human knowledge—conveys skills in critical thinking, communication and adaptability. As the pace of social and technological change quickens, these skills are in high demand."
Indeed, if I could pass along one piece of advice to prospective students it is this: Follow your heart. People who love their jobs are happier, more productive and, yes, make more.
A liberal arts education—one that exposes students to the breadth of human knowledge—conveys skills in critical thinking, communication and adaptability. As the pace of social and technological change quickens, these skills are in high demand.
The late Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple, once summarized the importance of the liberal arts this way: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”
America desperately needs scientists, engineers and mathematicians. But we also need historians, political scientists and Chinese majors—liberal arts graduates who are writers, critical thinkers and highly adaptable leaders.
America is a land of diverse temperaments and talents, and we need them all to meet the challenges of a world changing at a blistering pace. In the workplace and in life, liberal-arts majors can do well—and do good.
James W.C. White is interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at CU Boulder, professor of geological sciences and former director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.