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The Humanities, Arts, and Education

Not by Earnings Alone: A New Report on Humanities Graduates in the Workforce and Beyond

While much of the conversation about the outcomes of college graduates focuses on their earnings, a new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators offers a more expansive view of bachelor’s degree recipients’ experiences in the workforce and beyond. Drawing largely on original research, the report examines not only employment and earnings, but also graduates’ satisfaction with their work and their lives more generally. The data reveal that despite disparities in median earnings, humanities majors are quite similar to graduates from other fields with respect to their perceived well-being.

To offer some perspective on the report, William Adams, president emeritus of Colby College, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and now senior fellow at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, teases out the limitations of a purely quantitative approach to these questions and examines the larger questions raised by the report’s findings.

January 29, 2018

Valuing the Humanities

posted By
William D. AdamsWilliam D. Adams is Senior Fellow at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Former Chairman of National Endowment for the Humanities.

Defenders of the humanities in higher education tend to bristle when the topics of work and the economy come up. The humanities must be about more than jobs and compensation, they reason; we need to prepare students for all of the principal domains of adult life.

They’re right, of course, but questions about the economic returns on investments in higher education are not going away. Indeed they seem to be gaining momentum, even as our collective memory of the dark days of the Great Recession begins to fade. Consider, for example, recent suggestions by political officials—Kentucky’s governor comes to mind—that academic programs and concentrations should be assessed and supported according to job placement and compensation outcomes. If this example is extreme, it clearly conveys the tenor of the times.   More... 

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Defenders of Liberal Arts and Humanities programs seem to be overly defensive of this discipline. Of course, LA/Humanities graduates get jobs. They are by definition among the cream of the crop of the potential labor force in terms of acumen, intelligence and ambition. This is not the real question. The essence of most of the attacks are economic ones, and tend to be supported by data and acknowledged by defender and challenger alike. Dr. Adams' suggestion that we must know more about what happens to LA/Humanities graduates is good one. But it also implies that the employment prospects for these graduates have historically been viewed as a crapshoot, i.e. we're teaching them what we've always taught them and we are only now, in the face of public scrutiny and increased funding accountability, curious as to what becomes of them. This diffidence only supports those citing the human capital argument that LA/Humanities instruction represents education for consumption, but not as an investment.

In my view, his second suggestion is the more powerful one. He recommends that we know more about the skills being imparted by these programs relative to critical workforce demands such as communication and critical thinking skills.  LA/Humanities program proponents should make an extra effort to document and describe just how and within what context these skills are being taught - and the extent to which they are being taught/learned at a rate higher than other programs/majors.

Perhaps more than anything, the economic argument that is increasingly difficult to defend is the relative value proposition for LA/Humanities programs. It is not so much that these programs provide no labor market value, but at what cost that value. Attending a well-regarded tier 1 public university in the 1970's, my total investment in books and tuition for a year could be earned during a summer job. Not so today. But while the cost of university technology infrastructure, facilities and administrative overhead has skyrocketed, has the market value of a LA/Humanities education kept pace. Is it really that much more expensive to teach a classic LA/Humanities program today than it was 30 years ago? No, it is not. So while a LA/Humanities education may still offer value, the unreasonable cost of higher education in general has simply priced the value of this major out of the marketplace. This may not be the fault of LA/Humanities advocates, but they are caught up in, and suffer the repercussions of, the rapidly rising cost of higher education. The question can thus be reasonably asked, do the Humanities offer a reasonable, much less exceptional, return on investment? The fact that this conversation is at the forefront of debate within the university community tells us that the jury is still out.  

Rich Froeschle

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