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Winter for Higher-Ed
Do Liberal Arts Grads Really Make More Than Their Peers?

By this point, liberal arts degrees are generally associated with broke 20-somethings working as baristas in Brooklyn. Yet according to a new report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, liberal arts majors might actually be better off than many of their peers. Although they may earn less in the years immediately following graduation,  Inside Higher Ed points out, liberal arts majors win out in the long run:

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. […]

A deeper look, however, suggests that liberal arts majors aren’t sharing the wealth equally. For those who don’t go on to pursue an advanced degree, the outlook is more sobering:

Liberal arts graduates don’t fare quite as well when they possess just an undergraduate degree, though. The workers with advanced degrees in any field of study – who make up about 40 percent of all liberal arts graduates, and earn about $20,000 a year more for it — push the earnings averages up significantly. Among graduates with a baccalaureate degree only, those with humanities and social sciences degrees consistently earn less than anyone else, peaking at about $58,000 a year.

At first glance, the takeaway seems obvious: grad school is the path to prosperity. Unfortunately, this report’s findings are driven by conditions that won’t apply to today’s graduates. The high-earning older people who majored in humanities subjects and went to grad school are probably well-established lawyers and professors; average salaries for the rest are more modest. Both professions have taken a hit in recent years: law firms are cutting back, lowering fees, and offering fewer jobs to new lawyers. In mid-2013, the National Association of Law Placement announced that only 85 percent of 2012 law school graduates had a job—that might sound like a lot, but it was the lowest rate in 18 years. See here for more bad news about the job market.

We still think liberal arts should be an important part of our educational mix. A real education in the humanities, which enables you to play your part in life as a knowledgeable citizen and which exposes you to the best that has been thought and said in the world, is something that more people should have.

Yet much of today’s liberal arts education doesn’t live up to this goal. Liberal arts programs are increasingly concerned with critical theory and other academic fads, while giving short shrift to classics and literature. As currently constructed, colleges have two functions: helping students prepare for the workforce, and giving them a basic education in the foundations of Western Civ to prepare them for life and citizenship. Today’s liberal arts programs are doing neither. 

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  • Anthony

    “The career world is like an ecological system: people occupy particular fields within which they must compete for resources and survival.” Now, one question becomes are liberal arts degrees gateway to finding niche in the ecology that a grad can dominate (does it complement idea that you cannot have everything in the present). Secondarily, a companion question would be will liberal arts degree enhance grad’s learning opportunities. To this end, a third question becomes in this new age are liberal arts degrees compatible to expanding possibilities as grads get older. If answers are in affirmative, then hopefully, and taking cue from WRM, the programs will become more efficacious.

  • Andrew Allison

    Ah, yes. The Association of American Colleges and Universities is a clearly impartial commentator on the higher ed racket! Worse yet, neither of the quotes make anyy no reference to the relative earning of liberal arts majors versus, e.g. STEM, which make the headline completely irrelevant.

  • TommyTwo

    “liberal arts majors might actually be better off than many of their peers. Although they may earn less in the years immediately following graduation, Inside Higher Ed points out, liberal arts majors win out in the long run”

    To resort to the usual stereotypes*, this spin (which I will politely blame on the link) must have been written by a liberal arts major who is either deficient in logic or excessively proficient in demagoguery. What the study shows is that the liberal arts graduates (with all of the caveats noted here) eventually, towards the end, earn a higher annual salary. But unlike the strong impression this summary leaves, they never overcome the lifetime earnings advantage of other graduates. Aesop, anyone?

    * A college student is in a Boston-area store doing his weekly groceries. He goes to the express “10 items or less” check-out counter and proceeds to unload 20 items. The cashier glares at him and asks: “Are you an MIT student who can’t read or a Harvard student who can’t count?”

    • Andrew Allison

      *Neither, he’s a member of the elite, who believes that rules are for lesser beings.

      • TommyTwo

        So a Harvard student then. 🙂

        • Andrew Allison

          Of course (MIT students are also elite, but are naturally more inclined to follow the rules)!

  • Pete

    The liberal arts degree of yesteryear had a great deal more heft than today’s, don’t you think?

  • free_agent

    There is also evidence that college students these days are spending less time studying than college students of 50 years ago, which might also dilute the value of today’s degrees:

    The Falling Time Cost of College: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data
    Philip S. Babcock and Mindy Marks
    NBER Working Paper No. 15954
    April 2010

  • Fat_Man

    The validity of these studies leaves a great deal to be desired. What happened to the boomer generation is not necessarily what will happen to the millennials. Their lives are already different than the boomers lives were in the 60s and 70s and their paths will continue to diverge.

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