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).
The numbers aren't surprising. Poets aren't known for their obsession with material wealth. Public school teachers don't secretly think they'll get a 1,000% raise if they just stay in the job a few more years. Social workers aren't answering the suicide hotlines with the expectation that someone will call to tell them they've just won the lottery.

Rather, those of us who forgo some potential earnings in exchange for the intangible, but invaluable, opportunity to pursue our interests or stand by our convictions, usually do so knowingly. And often, we're rewarded for it. More and more, elite graduate programs are reserving coveted admission slots for nontraditional backgrounds, including those of us who shied away from calculators and avoided science labs.

Next Stop: Grad School
The Mount Sinai School of Medicine, for example, offers the Humanities and Medicine (HuMed) program, designed for college sophomores who want to complete an undergraduate major in the humanities or social sciences before entering medical school at Mount Sinai. In a press release last year, Mount Sinai researchers reflected on the 25-year-old program, in which accepted applicants are exempted from the traditional pre-med classes. They concluded that "these students are as successful, and in some cases more successful, than their traditionally educated classmates."

Like medical schools, graduate business programs have taken an interest in nontraditional students too. Among Stanford Business School's MBA class of 2011, 47% majored in either the humanities or the social sciences during college. Earlier this year, the dean of one of Europe's most respected business schools wrote in Bloomberg BusinessWeek about the importance of incorporating the humanities into traditional management curriculums, arguing that such integration will "cement the learning experience and develop open-minded and well-rounded graduates."

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.
Similarly, Williams, an elite, liberal arts college in Massachusetts, reports that 17.1% of respondents surveyed in the class of 2010 intended to go to graduate school directly after college. Chris Winters, director of institutional research at the college, told the school newspaper that "the proportion of students who go immediately to graduate school is much less than students who will go eventually." According to his estimates, 68% of Williams graduates enroll in an advanced degree program within five years of finishing college, while 84% attend within fifteen years.

More Than One Way to Measure 'Value'

Which is not to say that people should have to go to graduate school to get a decent-paying job. We shouldn't. For that matter, we shouldn't have to go to college to get a decent-paying job either. But we have to deal with the facts on the ground.
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. You can follow her on Twitter @LorenBerlin, or on Facebook.

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Joseph Lee

monopoly is bad. there are anti-trust laws against monopoly.

colleges should NOT have monopoly on education... there are many, many places to get education.

public university like

university of california

university of texas

university of michigan

university of washington..

public colleges are all paid with tax -money on public land.

public colleges should release all classes/research/work into public domain (PD)

All people in world can benefit from public domain (PD).

colleges colleges should release all work to public domain (PD)

September 26 2013 at 2:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joseph Lee

Free free free at public library...

humanities/social sciences/arts is Free free free.

All you need is Free free free library pass to the public library....

No class/money needed for this. Free free free/still free free free with free library pass...

September 26 2013 at 2:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

We need enginees more than anything else.

June 01 2011 at 4:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
In Theory....

I am a concerned about the negative tone the author takes regarding engineering as a profession and the inference that she makes that persons who study engineering are doing so only for the money. While I believe that the true thrust of the article is to point out that the focus on the material (income) gains of a profession is a bad way to choose a college major, the author does a poor job of making this argument concrete. Rather, the author presents a rather muddled case of non-traditional students and of long-term success(happiness) vs. income. (Implying that long-term success must come at the cost of one's true worth or conversely that you must be poor to be truly happy.)

Perhaps the author should take a moment and reflect on how the article can be perceived by an engineer. The rather explicit, although unintentional message is that to study engineering is to sell-out and you haven chosen to forsake your true worth for a paycheck. I would argue that engineering is a inherently satisfying profession and most (albeit not all) choose this professions because it appeals to that person's passions or strengths or desire to help society build and grow. The irony that the author's article would have likely never been made available to this audience without the hard work of an electrical and/or systems engineer is not lost on this engineer.

Suggested reading:

"The existential pleasures of engineering" - Samuel C. Florman

May 31 2011 at 2:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to In Theory....'s comment

Excellent insights. Article also fails to point out that many entering college studies, including arts & humanities, do so because their professors and teachers have said things like "College grads earn 25% more than non grads." etc. So the A&H majors think they will materially profit from college and are there for the money. Of course the "grads earn 25% more " claim is an exploitive fiction since the higher paid college grads (med,law, business,etc) pull up the stats to an average which most A&H majors will not reach. "Statistics don't lie, but liars quote statistics"

May 31 2011 at 3:45 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

As a student in the Humanities and Medicine Program at Mount Sinai, I wanted to correct your statement that the program doesn't require the traditional pre-med classes. Like all other students looking to go to medical school, I am required to take inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and biology, as well as maintaing the high academic standards that Mount Sinai expects.

The great thing about the program is the altered path they offer towards medical school, specifically the summer program they require that teaches organic chemistry and physics and both of their applications toward the medical field. Additionally, the time that I have saved from resume buffering "research lab" positions I have been able to put towards other passions, like singing...which has made my college experience so much more enjoyable, and helps to prevent what's known as burnout among medical students.

May 30 2011 at 5:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jake's comment

Jake - Thanks for the factual correction to the author of this piece, Loren Berlin. In some other of her pieces I have also seen factual inaccuracies which undermines the credibility of the point being made, even if it is only opinion.

May 30 2011 at 8:15 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I majored in "impractical" anthropology, spent 35 years applying what I learned in grade 4 - 6 teaching Mexican-American children, and now ("retired") am having a ball as an education specialist at a science museum - when I'm not traveling the world. Annual income: $75,000. I recently met a retired engineer driving a courtesy van for a car dealership just so he could get out of the house. He has no desire to take part time engineering consultant jobs. "Too many numbers to remember," he said. So who's the richer?

May 30 2011 at 4:08 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

among the distortions in an otherwise excellent piece is that fact that "petroleum engineers" number so few largely because of such sentiments. the field has one of the highest median ages of all professions; a fact that will contribute to future escalations in fuel costs created by the power of hipness.

May 29 2011 at 8:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brett Tonaille

This reminds me of the old Tolstoy story about what men need to know - one being that they cannot know what they will need in the future.
I graduated from college with a lit degree at a time when the "practical" major was engineering. Only, it turned out so many people had majored in it that there was a glut in the field. Meanwhile my writing skills turned out to be in demand. I didn't make as much money as I might have because I made some artistic choices along the way, but as I moved back towards the corporate world, I discovered that being able to write in a world where so many people have looked down on learning that was a real asset.
Oh yeah, and I bonded with like-minded people. Some of whom were well-placed to help me.
Start with your own center of gravity and work from there. That's where all the real strength comes from.

May 28 2011 at 2:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Brett Tonaille's comment

It's great that your "non-practical" studies proved to be of enormous value to you. You are in the minority. There is an old academic cliche that goes, " you don't know what you're going to need to know." With the implication that what you need to know is within the limited scope of academic knowledge. What you will need to know will overwhelmingly be found in encountering the infinite complexity and ambiguity of the real world.

May 28 2011 at 7:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Learn a trade. Nothing wrong with vocational school.

May 27 2011 at 9:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jerzfox's comment

yep, vocational trades will always in demand. It's all about bang for the buck. If someone's got trained skills, then they'll always be able to find a job.

May 27 2011 at 11:06 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

The articles writer is not living in the real world. She is looking at higher education like a Pollyanna. Unfortunately, college has gotten SO ridiculously expensive that if you are going to pay for it (or mommy and daddy are going to pay for it), it makes a lot more sense to get some kind of technical education where you can actually make a decent living than be a sociology or political science major, for example.That is, unless you are independently wealthy, can ultimately go and work for the family business or have some other safety net. In this day and age, not too many people can afford the luxury of of making the financial mistake of majoring in subjects where you are virtually wasting your time and essentially aren't learning anything that makes you employable. Unfortunately, unless you are truly gifted as a musician or as an artist, you'd be better advised learning a technical trade or get a degree where there are actually some decent paying jobs. True, not everyone is cut out or has the aptitude to be an engineer. So, maybe become an electrician, a plumber, even an accountant...especially if you like to eat.

May 27 2011 at 8:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply