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Articles / Applying to College / Good News for the Liberal Arts

Good News for the Liberal Arts

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Jan. 23, 2020
Good News for the Liberal Arts

Rita Chou/Unsplash

Recently, you may have seen a considerable amount of negative news about getting a degree from a liberal arts college. The implication has been that degrees in certain liberal arts majors are a ticket to under- (if not) unemployment, low pay, and work dissatisfaction. For example, take this analysis from 2019: 15 Worst College Majors for a Lucrative Career. On this list, you'll find such easy targets as Art History:

A bachelor's degree in art history is no sure path to future employment. Among these degree holders, four percent are unemployed and 20.2 percent have dropped out of the workforce, according to the Hamilton Project. Those who have found work aren't earning much. Museum technicians and conservators, for example, pull in a lean median salary of just $42,182 a year (less than the median $43,992 a year for all jobs). The latter occupation typically requires even more education, a master's in conservation or a related field

Another Target: Religious Studies

A true spiritual calling may come with significant rewards — just don't expect them to arrive in monetary form. Directors of religious education earn a median salary of about $38,979 a year, clergy members make $44,013 a year, and other religious workers earn just $29,141 annually.

More surprising than the small paychecks: Only 50 percent of religion majors report feeling that their work leaves a positive impact on the world. The same share of culinary arts majors, humanities majors and French language majors say the same

The List From 2018 Is Similar:

1. Photography

2. Art

3. Radio and Television

4. Anthropology

5. Graphic Design

6. Paralegal Studies

7. Art History

8. Music

9. Exercise Science

10. Religious Studies

I hate to invoke the term "fake news," but in light of new information, the previous thinking may fall, at least somewhat, into that category. Inside Higher Education's Kery Murakami just published Liberal Arts Pay Off in the Long Run, which leads with this thought:

"A liberal arts education may not have the highest returns in the short run, but a study finds that after 40 years, liberal arts institutions bring a higher return than most colleges."

Liberal Arts Will Pay Off Down the Road

Granted, this flies in the face of today's drive-up-window mentality. "I want what I want now!" is the battle cry of many young collegians and even high schoolers who don't want or have the capacity to think long range. However, Murakami presents a good case for patience. Some key points:

It might take a while. But in the long run, an education at a liberal arts college, particularly at one of the most selective ones and those with large numbers of science, technology, engineering and math majors, pays off more than an education at other colleges, finds a study released today by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

In the short term, the return for liberal arts institutions "starts out rather low," the study found, because it takes time for students at four-year colleges to graduate and begin earning money.

After 10 years, the return on investment at liberal arts colleges was $62,000, about 40 percent less than the $107,000 median ROI for attending all colleges, found the study, which used data made available on the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard to calculate the net present value of degrees and credentials from different colleges over short and long time frames.

But 40 years after enrollment, the return at liberal arts colleges reached $918,000, more than 25 percent higher than the $723,000 median gain at all colleges ...

Speaking for myself, I can attest to the accuracy of "... after 40 years, liberal arts institutions bring a higher return than most colleges" because I began enjoying the fruits of my liberal arts labors slightly before the 40-year mark. Again, though, this information is probably going to be deemed irrelevant by young people who want it all immediately, if not sooner.

Relatedly, I was amused by a thread title on the College Confidential discussion forum the other day that began something like, "What Jobs have $100k start up salary ...." Now there's an "I want it now!" mindset!

Affirmation Arrives for Liberal Arts

Getting back to Murakami's informative narrative, we can see the numbers graphically. Murakami points out another study from November last year that appears to parallel the Georgetown Center's findings released last week:

Particularly surprising … was how well liberal arts colleges compared to other institutions … The study found that liberal arts colleges were the third most lucrative among 14 types of colleges, as defined by the Carnegie Classification system. They trailed only doctoral universities with the highest and second-highest amounts of research activity -- including well-known ones like the California Institute of Technology, Duke University and Harvard University, many public flagship universities, and institutions with strong pre-professional programs like Chapman, Hampton and Villanova Universities.

The gain after 40 years at the top tier of research institutions was $1.14 million. At the second-highest tier of research institutions, it was $938,000.

At the most selective liberal arts institutions -- like Carleton College, Kenyon College, the University of Richmond, Wesleyan University and Williams College -- the gain was about the same, $1.13 million for students after 40 years.

The finding was seen as an affirmation for liberal arts colleges at a time when more students are turning to specialized training in fields like computer and information services. It comes also at a time of political rhetoric questioning and at times mocking the value of higher education and the liberal arts...

How Do STEM-Related Curricula Enter into the Mix?

The study also found that colleges with a high percentage of students majoring in STEM fields tend to have a higher gain than others because they tend to lead to higher-paying jobs.

Those in the top third of colleges in terms of the percentage of students with STEM majors have a return at the 40-year mark of $992,000, the study found. That was $179,000 more than institutions in the bottom third of having STEM majors.

But not all STEM fields pay the same. The median earnings for engineering majors, for example, are higher than for those who major in biology and natural resource sciences. That leads to differences between some institutions.

Engineering, for instance, is the most popular major at Lafayette College, a private liberal arts college based in Easton, Pa., where more than 40 percent of students major in STEM fields. The college has an ROI after 40 years of $1.4 million ...

Obviously, there are a number of ways to interpret any study's findings, but the very good news for patient liberal arts grads is that staying the course can definitely be rewarding, much more than some of today's "common wisdom" warns.

My recommendation, then, as it has been during all the decades that I have been working with college-bound high schoolers and current college students, is Follow your heart. If your heart is whispering "Art History" while others around you (parents?) are shouting, "Pre-med!" or "Engineering!" don't be afraid to consider those whispers. As the above analyses show, soulful and material riches can come from unlikely sources.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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