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Should I Major in the Liberal Arts?

September 24, 2018

If you major in English, history, or another liberal arts discipline, will you be able to find a job? New data on hireability and career earnings for liberal arts grads paint an interesting picture. 

 

“Critical thinking. Creativity. Interpretation. Studying English prepares you for a diverse range of professional fields, including teaching, journalism, law, publishing, medicine, and the fine arts,” says Stanford University’s Department of English on the Careers After an English Major section of its website. Such language has become increasingly common in recent years as colleges and universities rethink the way they market their liberal arts majors.


Why all the attention on liberal arts? In the past decade, although the total number of bachelor’s degrees conferred has increased, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in the liberal arts has declined. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), “the number of degrees in English language and literature was 14 percent lower in 2014–15 than in 2009–10… [and] the number of degrees in liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities was 7 percent lower.” As the cost of college attendance continues to climb, more students are choosing to major in STEM and business, which remain the most common and among the highest-paying majors. Accordingly (and unsurprisingly),  NCES lists business, health professions and related programs, biological and biomedical sciences, and engineering as some of the most popular majors for postsecondary students. English language and literature, history, and liberal arts are the 10th, 18th, and 19th most popular majors, respectively.


How have colleges and universities responded to declining enrollment in the liberal arts? According to a 2018 report by the Association of Departments of English, college and university English departments across the U.S. have been anticipating student concerns by specifically repositioning themselves to showcase how a liberal arts skillset can be marketable in the current economy. Common strategies include promising to develop students’ skills in reading, critical thinking, writing, and research, as well as linking the major to specific career prospects.


But does the data bear out? Can majoring in the liberal arts be a sound long-term career decision, or are colleges and universities making promises they cannot keep? Let’s examine how these majors fare in terms of hireability and long-term career earnings.

Should I Get an English Language and Literature Degree?

According to a 2015 report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, majoring in English language and literature leads to a median mid-career earning of $53,000. For comparison, the median mid-career earning for all bachelor’s degree holders is $61,000. In terms of hireability, the unemployment rate for young adults (25- to 29-year-olds) with a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature is 4 percent, which is not measurably different from the average for all fields of study (3.1 percent).


Where do English majors end up in terms of occupation? The most common occupations for workers with a terminal bachelor’s degree in English are management (20 percent of workers), office (15 percent), sales (13 percent), education (11 percent), and the arts (10 percent). However, these numbers exclude the 43 percent of English majors who go on to obtain a graduate degree (the average for all majors is 35.1 percent). In other words, Stanford isn’t wrong to advertise that its English department prepares students for careers in “teaching, journalism, law, publishing, medicine, and the fine arts.” Just be aware that many of these tracks require graduate school. If you don’t plan on or are uncertain about obtaining a graduate degree, you might not be the audience Stanford has in mind.

Should I Get a History Degree?

Along with English, history is one of the highest-paying liberal arts majors, coming in at a median mid-career earning of $54,000. In addition, history majors get a huge earnings boost—47.6%, or $26,000—from obtaining a graduate degree, as a graduate degree in history leads to a median mid-career earning of $80,000. In terms of hireability, the unemployment rate for history majors is 4.3 percent, which is, again, not measurably different from the average for all fields of study. The most common occupations for workers with a terminal bachelor’s degree in history are management (18 percent of workers), sales (16 percent), office (15 percent), education (11 percent), and business (6 percent).  

Should I Get a Liberal Arts Degree?

A bachelor’s degree in liberal arts leads to a median mid-career earning of $53,000. The unemployment rate for liberal arts majors varies depending on the source. The U.S. Department of Commerce groups liberal arts and humanities majors together to calculate an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent, which is higher than the average for all fields of study. In comparison, the Center on Education and the Workforce lists the unemployment rate for liberal arts majors as 9.2 percent for recent college graduates, 6.2 percent for experienced college graduates, and 3.8 percent for graduate degree holders. The most common occupations for workers with a terminal bachelor’s degree in liberal arts are management (18 percent of workers), sales (15 percent), office (14 percent), education (13 percent), and business (5 percent).


It probably didn’t escape you that all three of these majors fare worse than average in terms of their earning potential and hireability. Is Stanford then wrong to advertise its English department the way it does? Not necessarily. You just have to consider Stanford’s audience.


Departmental websites are created for prospective majors who already have an interest in that field of study (such as English language and literature) but, for one reason or another, may need an extra push. The school’s job is to reassure these students that they should feel safe in pursuing their interests. It is not to convince anyone that majoring in English is the best career decision.


Chances are, you’re not interested in the liberal arts for its earning potential. The question for you isn’t whether the liberal arts is the best career choice, it’s whether it’s a sound one. And there’s plenty of research that points to the answer being yes. According to a 2018 report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, on average, humanities and liberal arts graduates “earn less and have slightly higher levels of unemployment relative to science and engineering majors. With respect to perceived well-being, however, humanities majors are quite similar to graduates from other fields.” For example, despite variations in earnings, bachelor’s degree holders in the humanities actually reported higher levels of financial satisfaction than bachelor’s degree holders in business.  


In other words, although liberal arts majors tend to earn less than STEM and business majors, that doesn’t mean they are not earning enough to lead a happy, financially stable life.


Hannah Kwak is a junior at Yale University, majoring in Comparative Literature. She has an interest in education policy and spent last summer working with Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia preparing seniors for the college application process.