There’s a school of thought in the United States that says the only practical path through higher education is to earn a degree that immediately makes money. Or, at least, one that forges the beginnings of a successful career. In a certain, siloed way, this makes sense: It’s good to not spend outrageous sums on tuition or take on burdensome debt if you’re studying a field with no prescribed career track. Subscribing to this logic, though, is to view the pursuit of knowledge on single-minded terms.
Recently, the conversation surrounding the U.S.’ skyrocketing student debt crisis has regained momentum, with some critics heaping scorn on the possibility of president-elect Joe Biden forgiving the first $50,000 of any loanee’s outstanding bill via executive order. Many critics of the plan are wedded to the idea of education as a pragmatic tool for scaling the economic ladder—that is, a degree’s worth is based on how well it prepares you for the climb. This argument, which is nothing new, asserts that many of the loanees comprising Americans’ $1.6 trillion debt chose to accrue mountains of debt, only to receive “worthless degrees” in return.
Bluntly speaking, this idea—that a degree in the humanities is inherently worthless if it doesn’t eventually guarantee a salary commensurate with that of a doctor or corporate attorney—is a farce. There is no such thing as a worthless degree. In fact, there’s plenty of data out there to grant assurance to any English major that studying Shakespeare has value that can be translated into longterm professional success.
Liberal arts degrees are valued by tons of employers
Learning how to think critically, form analytical arguments, and write persuasively are just a few of the skills honed from studying history, English, or philosophy, and the corporate sector understands that. According to an exhaustive 2018 survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in which a thousand executives and hiring managers were asked about qualities they look for most in employees, the results were an unequivocal validation of a liberal arts education.
The report found that hiring managers value “oral communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, working effectively in teams, written communication, and the real-world application of skills and knowledge” above all else.
Again, in a study from 2018, conducted by labor market analytics firm Emsi and the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, 100 million online professional profiles, resumes, and other data points were analyzed to help glean a sense of what employers look for in prospective liberal arts majors. Across the board, the report found that “human skills—like leadership, communication, and problem solving—are among the most in-demand skills in the labor market.”
These skills, which in some ways form the bedrock of an education in the humanities, “help liberal arts grads thrive in many career areas, including marketing, public relations, technology, and sales,” the report found.
A humanities degree doesn’t mean you’ll be broke
Perhaps the prevailing argument against a liberal arts degree is that it will never pay for itself, but again, data shows how this is largely false. While writing code for a Silicon Valley juggernaut almost guarantees a lucrative salary, even at the starting level, humanities majors aren’t exactly cash-strapped, perennial job-hunters.
Another survey by the AACU in 2014 considered the long arch of professionals with a background in the liberal arts. Citing census data, the authors found some alluring data points that might dissuade you from joining that coding bootcamp, such as this insight:
- At peak earnings ages (56-60 years) workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences earn annually on average about $2000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields. These data include all college graduates working full-time, including those with only a baccalaureate degree and those with both a baccalaureate and graduate or professional degree.
And while graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields tend to enter the job market on higher salaries than humanities graduates, various studies have shown how the gap often closes. As the Chronicle of Higher Education distilled in 2018:
Bachelor’s-degree graduates in engineering and the sciences earn roughly $10,000 to $30,000 more, but humanities majors catch up over time — and humanities majors more effectively close the pay gap between younger and older workers. What’s more, the college debt that humanities graduates carry is about the same compared to other majors.
Degrees aren’t marketable, people are
No company or person is hiring a piece of paper emblazoned with a university crest. They are hiring people, who have to be amenable to a job’s challenges, but also decent human beings to work with for 40 hours a week or more. While a degree is a relative measure of your academic pedigree, it says very little about how you adapt to change and take direction from the people tasked with managing you.
It’s likely that fresh cohorts of graduating seniors are likely to follow in the footsteps of millennials, who’ve been forced to navigate the rocky economic playing field by changing jobs more than any other previous American generation. That said, it’s best to study what you want, because much of what you’ve heard about the paltry longterm career prospects of humanities majors likely isn’t true.