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

By
William D. Adams
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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.

Valuing the Humanities

William D. Adams

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.

In this climate, and for the foreseeable future, several things are true. First, we need to know more about how graduates with humanities degrees are doing in the workplace. Second, we need to know more about how the skills the humanities seek to impart—critical thinking and communication skills, for instance—actually matter in the workplace. And third, we need to be willing to adjust our views about which humanities aptitudes are significant (or not) in the extraordinarily dynamic workplace of the coming decades. Along the way, we’re also going to have to get a better grip on just how well we’re doing in fostering the capabilities we deem most relevant to work readiness and success.

The new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators—The State of the Humanities 2018: Graduates in the Workforce and Beyond—is a step in the right direction. In addition to new findings regarding the financial fate of humanities graduates, the report offers insight into the critical issue of what additional questions we need to ask if we are to muster more persuasive accounts of how the humanities contribute to success in the workplace and beyond.

In the bottom line matter of salaries, humanities advocates will be interested to know that the median income for workers with a terminal bachelor’s degree in the humanities was $52,000 in 2015. Consistent with other studies on the value of the college degree, that’s substantially higher than the median income for high school graduates ($34,000) and workers with some college or associate degrees ($40,000). It’s also, and not surprisingly, substantially lower than the median for engineering graduates ($82,000). It’s mildly surprising that humanities degree holders have about the same median income starting out as graduates in the life sciences. In all fields, and in similar proportions, advanced degrees bring a substantial salary premium.

What happens to these salary differences over time? The income gaps between humanities degree holders and those with degrees in business, engineering, health and medical sciences, and social sciences close substantially, while a gap with the life sciences opens up. But in general, humanities majors tend to catch up over time, which is also important information.

Not everyone wants to be or can be an engineer, of course, and money means very different things to different people. Data provided on measures of financial satisfaction suggest that humanities graduates are not any more or less likely to worry about money than business or STEM majors, and only modestly more worried (or less satisfied) than engineers. And across all the elements of compensation—salary, benefits, job security, opportunities for advancement—levels of satisfaction among college graduates from all academic fields are remarkably similar.

These are all bottom-line measures of financial outcomes. But as Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen have argued, we ought to be looking at workplaces not simply in terms of making a living, but also in terms of how they contribute to the growth of certain basic “human capabilities.” The Humanities Indicators report is suggestive in this regard. For instance, graduates across the spectrum of academic fields were asked to rate their satisfaction at work in terms of intellectual challenge, contribution to society, level of responsibility, and degree of independence. Responses were remarkably similar across fields and also surprisingly high, ranging between 80 and 90 percent “satisfied” in each measure. Probing further the meaningfulness of work in terms of these and other measures would be helpful, especially if the outcomes can be tied back in some way to fields of study.

Last but not least, the Indicators report gives us some clues about areas for further research. It’s intriguing to note, for instance, that humanities graduates are distributed broadly across occupations, but are most strongly represented in management, administrative support, and education. The last category is not at all surprising, but we will want to learn much more about if and how humanities aptitudes relate to the demands of organizational management. Employer ratings of college graduates’ work readiness in terms of certain skills—writing, foreign languages, and history—are suggestive but inconclusive.

As we seek to know more about the perceptions of employers, we also need humanists to be much more engaged in thinking about the contemporary workplace and the evolving picture for humanities-related aptitudes and skills. We know, for instance, that computer-related skills continue to grow in significance, and humanists are beginning to take note by embracing the professional relevance of the digital humanities. But the hierarchy of skills is certainly changing in other ways, and proponents of the humanities should be uniting with social scientists to determine the most significant emergent workplace skills, especially as they relate to humanities teaching and learning.

Even as we acknowledge the importance of the relationship between the humanities and the workplace, we need to continue to make the case that the humanities prepare students for dimensions of life beyond the workplace, and that those places matter just as much to society and individuals alike. None is more important than democratic citizenship. What are the key capacities buttressing engagement in democracy? There is a long history of theoretical discussion of this matter, from Aristotle to Dewey to Danielle Allen. But we have not really tested those and other theories empirically, or at least not sufficiently to offer empirical as well as philosophical accounts. Beyond politics, there is the murkier but no less important issue of how higher education contributes to the moral dimensions and challenges of life—the places where we confront and realize our deeper potential and purposes as human beings. For in this zone, hard to define precisely but encountered sooner or later by everyone, the humanities are essential.

So there is much more empirical and theoretical work to be done. We can be glad that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is there to help us do it.

 

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Humanities Indicators

Chair
Norman Marshall Bradburn