This is the second segment of a three-part blog series about why students (and their parents) shouldn’t stress about choosing a major. It complements a video I also recently posted.  In the previous blog post, I talked about my own college experience and how it taught me to think in complex ways, and from different disciplinary angles. In this installment, I present recent research to question my own hypothesis (that a college major doesn’t matter), as well as to argue for the values of the liberal arts in the long run.  

As a humanist, I am distressed at the recent research that demonstrates both that your major matters (for starting salary and unemployment) and that the humanities do relatively poorly by this measure. Anthony Carnevale at the Georgetown Center of Education and the Workforce  found that the four majors that provided the least economic rewards were (from the bottom up) psychology and social work, education, arts, and humanities, with engineers and computer scientists making significantly more money right away and even after graduate school. Carnevale and his colleagues have repeatedly discovered that your choiceof major substantially affects employment prospects and earnings. Majors that are linked to occupations generally provide better employment, and being able to make technology is better for finding employment than just being able to use it.  STEM graduates have lower unemployment than do arts and humanities grads.

Humanists have decided to do their own studies, and the AACU found (http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/nchems.pdf ) that over time, humanities and social science majors actually surpass those in professional and pre-professional majors during the peak performing years (ages 56-60).  This was widely reported as “Liberal Arts Grads Win Long-Term,” but even in these articles, the data are explicit that STEM grads make more money—even when you average in all of those graduates degrees. With no graduate degree, humanities majors (on average) close the gap, but they never reach the unemployment levels of professional, pre-professional, and STEM majors.

As a scientist, I look at the data and question my hypothesis.  It is fine to argue for the values of the liberal arts (even in Forbes), but we also need to look at the evidence.

The most recent study (this time from three Yale economists tells us that the difference in starting pay gets extended in a recession. They argue first that poor labor markets disrupt early careers by reducing wages and employment. They also found that while your chances of full-time employment eventually even out over seven years, the negative wage effect persists—forever. These effects are differential across majors, and the initial wage gaps across majors widen and persist in a recession. Apparently these effects are double in our recent great recession.

We should not ignore this evidence. When it comes to employment and wages, engineering is a better bet than history. If you are an English major seeking a higher salary, law school is a good choice.  While I’d like everyone to be able to follow their passion, that is surely easier to do if your parents can afford it. If you need to pay for college, you cannot ignore the data on majors. (By the way, the reason I was a chemistry major? My mother insisted.)

As a humanist, however, I ask what all this means. Employers continue to say that they want critical thinkers and lifelong learners,  which Goucher students are taught to be by the time they graduate. Jobs are changing faster than they ever have. Future employers will reward those who can adapt and continue to learn. There are plenty of opportunities to learn technical skills (https://developers.google.com/university/) for free on the Internet. A technical or professional major will probably continue to provide an initial wage and employment boost, but unless you keep learning, those skills will eventually be supplanted by others. College is about perspective and learning how to learn, which we emphasize a lot here at Goucher.

You probably learn somewhat differently in the humanities and the sciences. While the humanities are not merely qualitative, and the sciences are much more than quantitative analysis, thinking about proficiency in both is useful. You will need to continue learning in both ways to have the life you want.


Read Part III here

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