The Value of a Humanities Degree


Inline with my ongoing discussion of the costs of higher education, I’ve noticed a lot of recent discussion that tries to evaluate the value of different college degrees. On the one hand, I think that humanists lose the argument when we try to fix the value of a degree in monetary terms. But as a practical matter, the economic environment and the skyrocketing costs of higher education demand we engage the question.

In an article just published for Bloomberg, Peter Orzag, the Obama administration’s recent director of the OMB, notes that we can expect current economic conditions to depress wages for college graduates as much as ten percent after ten years. Orzag makes a pragmatic case that decreased wages imply we should make a college degree less expensive, particularly at public universities already squeezed by tightened state budgets and higher medical costs. But this also implies that students will be shopping more carefully for degrees regardless of the public vs. private university path they choose. Yesterday, Kevin Drum posted a WSJ chart that purports to break down unemployment rates by profession and degree. Drum highlights the top-paying careers, which are heavy with engineers. But unemployment tells a different story. Engineers seem to be about average, with around 5.1% unemployment. Holders of science degrees fare a little worse, with 5.2% unemployed. It turns out the sector you really want to be in is education — only 4% unemployment. (An engineer might argue that this marginal difference in unemployment is compensated by economic value — their median salary is $78,000 versus $43,500 for teachers.)

Liberal Arts and English degree holders don’t do terribly well on either measure. English majors face 6.7% unemployment and average $48,000 in wages; the figures for Liberal Arts majors 7.6% and $48,000. But this raises a more interesting question for me. Why is it that students would continue to get degrees that couple job uncertainty with lower wages? I don’t think that difficulty could possibly account for the difference. More particularly, how do we measure quality of life? The key factor in my decision to change careers from research in the sciences to work in the humanities was my evaluation of how much I would like my daily work. Decades of 40+ hour weeks spent in the lab had far less appeal than the freedom to read books and work at home and in coffee shops. My expectations were a little skewed (I didn’t appreciate the amount of time I’d spend grading, preparing for lectures, and fulfilling administrative duties), but the overall expectation seems to have been accurate. So how can we think about student’s expectations regarding the non-monetary quality of life benefits that different degrees will bring?

Drum’s point seems to be that students are not making informed decisions about the value of their degrees. This runs counter to my experience, given the strong pressure that parents put upon students to select degrees carefully. In fact any distortion in the relationship between degree value and unemployment (students taking high-uncertainty but low-paying degrees) would seem to imply the reverse — that students are actively choosing against economic self-interest. One (slightly tendentious) way to look at this might be to compare a liberal arts degree with a degree in business. Business degree holders average 5.5% unemployment and a $63,500 salary. If we were to assume that business degree holders are a kind of control, primarily concerned with the effect of monetary wealth on quality of life, rather than non-monetary effects, this suggests that these non-monetary benefits are worth about $15,000 dollars and an increased 2% employment uncertainty to liberal arts majors.

Clearly this is an oversimplification. One way to try and get at the broader trend is to plot all degrees in terms of salaries and employment. Here, I’ve charted average salary versus unemployment for all majors:

The line indicates that, on average, jobs with higher salaries have lower unemployment in the current market. On one view, this negative trend is not a good sign — it indicates a somewhat inefficient relationship between the degrees that are sought and actual employment conditions. On the other hand, it points toward alternative pressures on the kinds of degrees that students seek. If we look at specific degrees, we can see that engineers and scientists get paid more, on average, than other professions with an equivalent unemployment rate. Drum takes this as evidence that more students should be pursuing these degrees, but the alternative view is that there are other reasons students don’t pursue careers in science or engineering. Part of it has to be the difficulty of the coursework, particularly math and science skills, but I am inclined to think that enjoyment plays a function here, too. If students don’t like math and science coursework, it translates to an evaluation of how much they would enjoy careers which heavily depend upon those subjects.

Business majors are their own class — given the current economic environment, it’s hard to see why students would avoid pursuing a well paying career with about average job security. I’m inclined to think that, again, there are other considerations which are brought to bear here. I’d go further, and suggest that these considerations have to do with quality of life and the question of meaning, in its vocational sense. (What makes work meaningful?) But I’m speculating here.

A contrary case is education, where teachers appear to trade some salary for very low unemployment. If you combine this with the high prestige of teaching (if not necessarily its cultural capital), this looks like a particularly well-informed decision.

Of the most interest is the location of English and Humanities majors. These students are taking degrees which provide less salary on average and greater employment uncertainty. Why? I don’t want to speculate too much here. Certainly, I don’t think that these are the easiest degrees to obtain, though it is significant that they require less math and science coursework. The most I can say, is that a chart like this does not capture the evaluations that students are making with regard to the different kinds of value that different degrees bring. At the same time, it’s important that humanists begin to think about how we might make the case for humanism it visually-evident terms. As an example, Daily Infographic recently posted a visually engaging infographic from The Best Colleges that makes, unproblematically, the assertion that some students take on “tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt pursuing relatively worthless degrees” (my emphasis), contrasting chemical engineering with “Ufology.” The current economic climate makes it more important than ever that we develop ways of evaluating “worth” that are not exclusively monetary, and that we can quantify, or at least, visualize.