Oh, the Humanities! College Grads with ‘Fluffy’ Majors Make Way Less Money

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A new study indicates that—shocker!—college students majoring in subjects such as social work, visual and performing arts, and theology can expect to make far less money than workers who majored in engineering, computer science, or business. Grads with degrees in the humanities, arts, education, and psychology tend to earn less upon getting out of college, and they also earn less over the course of their working lives. Basically, they just plain earn less.

Many studies have revealed which majors make the most money right after graduation. The new report, conducted by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (English and Political Science are among the most popular majors there, btw), uses previously unreported census data to analyze the long-term earnings of 171 different college degree majors. What researchers found probably isn’t all that surprising. All ten of the majors with the highest median salaries ($80K and up) involve engineering, math, or science. The median salaries for grads who majored in counseling, religious vocations, drama, visual and performing arts, or social work, on the other hand, were $40K or under. Overall, Liberal Arts and Humanities majors (including English, History, Philosophy) earn median incomes of $47,000 annually.

(Read: The 20 Best- And Worst-Paid College Majors)

Also unsurprising: Researchers, who work for a top-notch university that charges tons in tuition, say that, no matter what the student’s major, it’s a good financial decision to go to a top-notch university that charges tons in tuition. The press release announcing the report states:

While there is a lot of variation in earnings over a lifetime, the authors find that all undergraduate majors are “worth it,” even taking into account the cost of college and lost earnings.

Strictly by the numbers—and momentarily putting aside debates about happiness, finding purpose in life, and all that jazz—it appears that certain majors are far more “worth it” than others.

In the Washington Post’s coverage (and it was the WP categorizing some majors as “fluffy,” not English-major me), one poet quoted sure seems to have a good grasp of the math involved here:

“Education is so off-the-charts expensive now,” said poet and Florida International University professor Campbell McGrath, who noted that his son is considering an anthropology degree. “You are making a really weird decision if you decide to send your kids off to study philosophy. It would be a better world if we all studied the humanities. But it’s not a good dollars-and-cents decision.”

Increasingly, there are those who say that higher education as a whole—any college, no matter what the course of study—is also not a good dollars-and-cents decision for students. A recent New York magazine story makes the case that the overpriced college tuition bubble will inevitably burst. The idea that college is overvalued, and not particularly good at educating students, makes me think of a brilliant old quote from Frank Zappa:

“If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.”

One flaw in the anti-college argument is that, even if a college degree is just a pricey piece of paper, it’s a piece of paper that’s worth paying for. It’s not only colleges and universities making that claim. In a recent survey, at the same time that most people agreed that college is unaffordable and not a good value, even more people said that personally, their own college degree was a good investment. What’s more, 94% of parents surveyed expected to send their own kids off to college.

Before switching majors or pushing your child into petroleum engineering (the highest-earning major, with a median salary of $120K), however, make note that the median salaries most prominently featured in the report do not factor in graduate degrees. English majors who went on to be lawyers, for instance, and Sociology majors who later earned MBAs are not represented in those main figures.

The study notes that about 40% of Liberal Arts and Humanities majors obtain graduate degrees, and with them a bump up in salary, so in some cases the engineers aren’t out-earning the English majors by quite as much. About 44% of education majors earn graduate degrees, for example, and by doing so they raise their incomes by 33%. Teachers who majored in science and computer education do better than their colleagues, boosting their incomes by 49%.

College (and Debt) by the Numbers
The College Graduate’s Guide to Reality: Essential Reading for Those Trying to Enter the Workforce
Survey: College Is Unaffordable, and a Poor Value. But It’s Still a Good Investment?