IntroductionBack to table of contents
How should one measure the value of a college degree? In recent years, policy-makers have focused their attention on earnings as the primary measure of the value of a degree, often using that metric to single out humanities degrees as less valuable than others.1 But there are other—less tangible—measures of value, such as satisfaction with one’s work and life more generally, that might also be applied to these discussions.
Without taking a position on which metrics are best, this report, based largely on original research commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators, examines a variety of outcome measures, including graduates’ satisfaction with their jobs, their finances, and their lives generally. The evidence shows that humanities graduates tend to earn less and have slightly higher levels of unemployment than business majors and graduates from some STEM fields. With respect to perceived well-being, however, humanities majors are similar to graduates from almost every other field. The data cannot explain the seeming disparity between the objective and subjective measures, but they provide a starting point for a more nuanced discussion about the relationship among fields of undergraduate study, employment, and quality of life. And for faculty, the report also points to a potential area of concern regarding the way they communicate to students about the skills developed in the course of an education in the field, as a substantial share of humanities graduates perceive little or no relationship between their job and their degree. The data were all gathered prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but past experience tracking this sort of data for the humanities—particularly through the Great Recession—gives us little reason to expect a significant shift in values over the medium term.
This report reflects the ongoing mission of the Humanities Indicators, a nationally recognized source of nonpartisan information about the field. The Indicators website covers 121 topics and includes more than 340 graphs detailing the state of the humanities in schools, higher education, and the workforce; levels of support for research and other key activities; and the role of the humanities in the day-to-day life of the nation. The project draws on data sources that meet the highest standards of social scientific rigor, relying heavily on the products of the U.S. federal statistical system.
For those wishing to create custom visualizations or perform analyses beyond those described in the following pages, the values underlying the graphs can be downloaded.
- 1In Florida, for instance, a bill was recently introduced in the state senate to limit scholarships for degree programs that “do not lead directly to employment.” Both wages and industry demand for graduates would be used to exclude degree programs. The bill was widely interpreted as an effort to reduce funding for arts and humanities subjects. See, for instance, Irfan Kovankaya, “I Was a Liberal Arts Major: Education Is about More than Jobs,” Tallahassee Democrat, March 4, 2021.