IntroductionBack to table of contents
Discussions about the value of a college degree in the humanities have become something of a cottage industry of late. Opinions range from enthusiastic support of the long-term benefits of humanities degrees to resigned acceptance or acid humor regarding the ostensibly grim career outcomes of graduates from the field. As the number of students graduating with degrees in the humanities started to drop in recent years, these conversations appeared to take on increased urgency.1
Much of the conversation rests on certain basic assumptions about how to measure the value of a degree and a career, starting with the belief that the earnings of a college graduate are the foremost gauge of a degree’s worth. This report, based largely on original research commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators, examines a broader range of measures about holders of four-year bachelor’s degrees, including graduates’ satisfaction with their jobs, finances, and lives generally. The evidence shows that humanities graduates earn less and have slightly higher levels of unemployment relative to science and engineering majors. With respect to perceived well-being, however, humanities majors are quite similar to graduates from other fields. The data cannot explain the disparity between the objective and subjective measures, but they should provide a starting point for a more nuanced discussion about the relationship between field of undergraduate study, employment, and quality of life.
This report reflects the ongoing mission of the Humanities Indicators, a nationally recognized source of nonpartisan information on the state of the humanities. The Indicators website (www.HumanitiesIndicators.org) features 103 topics and includes more than 500 graphs and data tables detailing the state of the humanities. 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. In producing this report, the Indicators staff also received crucial support from Louis Tay and Christopher Wiese (Purdue University), who provided special data runs from the Gallup-Purdue Index survey of college alumni.
- 1As an example of the former, see Jeffrey Dorfman, “Surprise: Humanities Degrees Provide Great Return on Investment,” Forbes (November 20, 2014), https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffreydorfman/2014/11/20/surprise-humanities-degrees-provide-great-return-on-investment/#745a203a2031. For an example of the second category, see Randye Hooder, “Why I Let My Daughter Get a ‘Useless’ College Degree,” Time (January 16, 2014), http://ideas.time.com/2014/01/16/why-i-let-my-daughter-get-a-useless-college-degree/. For the third category, see Derek Thompson, “Fear of a College-Educated Barista,” The Atlantic (September 20, 2016), https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/09/fear-of-a-college-educated-barista/500792/.