Oh, the Humanities: Why Not to Pick a College Major Based on a Salary Chart


Here’s how I describe my college experience. I met people unlike any I’d ever encountered in my hometown in Oklahoma. I became intrigued by, and committed to addressing, issues facing low-income communities. I was challenged to sort out my beliefs and consider how I want to contribute to the world.

Here’s how a new report released by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce would describe my college experience. I attended an expensive university (Wesleyan), made the financially regrettable decision to major in the humanities (Latin American Studies) and then, unsurprisingly, took a low-paying job (at a nonprofit organization).

They would say I’m par for the course among humanities majors. According to the research, we make less than our counterparts with more technical educations, as measured by the median, annual earnings for individuals with various bachelor’s degrees. Engineers top the list at $75,000, while the humanities clock in at $47,000 and the arts at $44,000, with psychology and education bringing up the rear at $42,000. (Fields are further delineated into 171 individual majors, though there are so few petroleum engineers, for example, that it hardly seems realistic to consider that profession an option for many undergraduate students, despite the occupation’s $120,000 median earnings).

Medical schools, business schools and law schools — which are teeming with humanities majors — channel students into some of the nation’s most lucrative careers. And yet, even as the institutions that train tomorrow’s leaders embrace the softer disciplines, some question whether it makes sense to study literature, or ethnomusicology, or anthropology, or so many of the other fascinating, and valuable fields under scrutiny. The Georgetown researchers phrased the question strictly in financial terms, asking “which majors should students consider if they want the best chance of earning family-sustaining wages?”

It’s an inquiry that adds the most value in the ethereal world of academic research. In the grind of everyday life, people don’t stop educating themselves after college. Instead, many go on to enroll in graduate school. In fact, those same researchers found that 91% of students who major in “school student counseling” obtained an advanced degree, as did 89% of those in “educational administration and supervision,” 79% of those in “Health and Medical Preparatory Programs,” 70% of those in “counseling psychology,” 67% of those in either library science or physics.

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Still, encouraging students to consider their college major exclusively through the lens of financial return is myopic.

I’m not saying that students should disregard the financial impact of selecting a major. Of course not. College is expensive, and everyone should take the time to do the math as it relates to their choices. But college isn’t just about the monetary return on investment. And to reduce an education to such a blunt calculation is to ignore the multitude of rewards that have both nothing and everything to do with long-term success. Specifically, the opportunity to learn how to interact with people from all over the world, the ability to question what you know, the chance to push your limits, and to explore the unknown with the relative safety net of knowing that the worst-case scenario for failure is probably little more than a bad grade on a paper.

In reflecting on the findings, Anthony Carnevale, one of the report’s authors, told The Washington Post, “There’s this business about people in college following a dream. But how do you know it’s a dream? Students have a right to know what kind of career they’re headed for.”

He’s right. We do. But there’s much more to that choice — and to a person’s long-term success — than a number on a salary chart.

Loren Berlin is a columnist at DailyFinance.com. She can be reached at loren.berlin (at) teamaol.com.

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