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Op-ed: Humanities grads hold their own in job market

Published September 12, 2014 5:28 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In January, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the National Center for Higher Education (NCHEMS) published "How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment." Drawing upon U.S. Census data from 2010 and 2011, the report provides evidence to refute several common misconceptions about the long-term financial effects on students who elect to major in the liberal arts (defined as humanities, arts and social sciences).

Among their most striking findings are: 1) At peak earning ages (56-60 years), those who majored in humanities and social sciences actually earn $2,000 more than those who majored in professional or pre-professional fields; 2) Unemployment rates are low for liberal arts graduates (5.2 percent) and those rates decline over time; 3) About 40 percent of liberal arts majors pursue and attain graduate or professional degrees, experiencing significant earning boosts when they do.

It's been a while since those of us who work in the humanities, arts and social sciences have had good news about job and earning prospects for students graduating in our areas. As someone who talks to both parents and their college-aged children about possible majors and career choices, I often hear parents advocating coursework in business, health professions, or sciences — especially when a child seems to be leaning toward English, foreign languages or theater arts.  



Parental concerns about their children's future employability and earning power echo fears of various legislators who question the value of state funding for coursework in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. In 2011, the Utah Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee heard one of our state senators argue against degrees in the liberal arts, calling them "degrees to nowhere." Nationally, governors in Florida, Wisconsin and North Carolina have suggested that state tax dollars should not go to humanities departments at public institutions of higher education. North Carolina Gov. Patrick McCrory wants legislation that would fund universities based  not "on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs" and asserted that he doesn't want to subsidize liberal arts "if that's not going to get someone a job."

The AAC&U/NCHEMS report on jobs and earnings for liberal arts majors provides data to counteract the more dire predictions about degrees leading students nowhere. I am grateful for the data, but even more thankful for the conversation that the report has generated. Articles about "How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment" have been featured in Forbes, Inside Higher Education and a range of other journals. Inevitably, those articles have spawned a wealth of comments, some critical of the data, some asking about assumptions of the study and others pointing out errors in interpretation. These comments push us to ask even larger questions: What are the purposes of publicly-supported institutions of higher education? Should appropriations be tied to students' marketability upon graduation, or are there other, less-easily measured benefits associated with state support for public universities and colleges?

From my perspective, the gift that a liberal arts education offers to us is precisely this desire to engage in thoughtful, informed, critical interpretation and conversation about issues of importance to us as individuals and community members. We need to continue studying the liberal arts not simply because graduates in these areas will find jobs, but because graduates in these areas engage in "judgment/decision-making, communications, analysis and administration" — competencies that contribute to full, rich lives — and which happen to be the foremost in-demand competencies in the labor market according to "Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020" (Georgetown Public Policy Institute).

Madonne Miner, Ph.D., is dean of the Telitha E. Lindquist College of Arts & Humanities at Weber State University.

 

 

 

 

 

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