A Liberal Arts Education: Preparation for Personal and Professional Success

A new report documents that liberal arts disciplines prepare graduates for long-term professional success.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) recently released a new report on earnings and long-term career paths for college graduates with different undergraduate majors. In How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment, authors Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly analyze data from the 2010-11 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and provide answers to some common questions posed by students, parents, and policy makers who are increasingly concerned about the value of college degrees.

Responding to concerns about whether college is still worth it and whether liberal arts* majors provide a solid foundation for long-term employment and career success, the report compares earnings trajectories and career pathways for liberal arts majors with the earnings trajectories and career pathways for those majoring in science and mathematics, engineering, and professional or preprofessional fields like business or education.

“Recent attacks on the liberal arts by ill-informed commentators and policy makers have painted a misleading picture of the value of the liberal arts to individuals and our communities,” AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider said. “As the findings in this report demonstrate, majoring in a liberal arts field can and does lead to successful and remunerative careers in a wide array of professions.”

In addition to providing useful information about long-term career success of liberal arts graduates, the report also shows “the extent to which degree holders in humanities and social sciences are flocking to a family of social services and education professions that may pay less well than some other fields (e.g., engineering or business management), but that are necessary to the health of our communities and to the quality of our educational systems.”

The report argues that “whatever undergraduate major they may choose, students who pursue their major within the context of a broad liberal education substantially increase their likelihood of achieving long-term professional success.”

Key Findings

Liberal arts majors close earnings gaps—earn more than professional majors at peak earnings ages.
• At their peak earnings ages (56-60 years) workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences earn annually on average about $2,000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields. These data include all college graduates working full-time, including those with only a baccalaureate degree and those with both a baccalaureate and graduate or professional degree.

Unemployment rates are low for liberal arts graduates—and decline over time.
• The unemployment rate for recent liberal arts graduates is 5.2 percent. The unemployment rate for mature workers with liberal arts degrees (41-50) is 3.5 percent—just .04 percent higher than the rates for those with a professional or preprofessional degree.

Liberal arts graduates disproportionately pursue social services professions.
• Relative to their share in the overall employment market, graduates with humanities or social science degrees are overrepresented in social services professions like social work or counseling.

Many liberal arts and sciences majors also attain graduate and professional degrees and experience significant earnings boosts when they do.
• More than 9.6 million individuals hold a baccalaureate degree in a humanities or social sciences field, and nearly 4 million of these individuals (about 40 percent) also hold a graduate or professional degree. These graduates with advanced degrees experience, on average, a yearly boost in earnings of nearly $20,000. More than half of science and math majors earn advanced degrees and experience, on average, a boost in earnings of more than $30,000 when they do.

Graduate and professional degrees provide earning boosts for all; largest boost for science and math majors and smallest boost for professional majors.
• Graduate and professional degrees provide significant boosts in earnings for all majors. The largest graduate/professional degree earnings bump is experienced by those with science or mathematics degrees. The smallest bump is experienced by those with professional or preprofessional degrees.

Median annual salaries are highest for engineering graduates; but, whatever the undergraduate major, college degrees lead to increased earnings over time and protect against unemployment.
• The median earnings of engineering graduates are consistently higher than the earnings of all other degree holders, but college graduates in all fields see their salaries increase significantly over time.

“Graduates of a liberal arts education have the broad translational skills that employers are seeking,” Rollins President Lewis Duncan said. “Employers increasingly value a broad base of knowledge combined with critical thinking, clear communication, and the ability to solve complex problems—all hallmarks of the liberal arts and sciences.”

Note on Methodology

The study analyzed public use files from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2010 and 2011. These files include information related to the education and occupation of about 3 million U.S. residents between the ages of 21 and 65. The report authors grouped together for purposes of comparison college graduates with four-year degrees in a humanities or social science field (e.g. philosophy, history, or sociology) and compared the employment status of these individuals with that of three other groups: those with degrees in a professional or pre-professional field (e.g. nursing or business), those with a degree in science or mathematics (e.g. chemistry or biology), and those with a degree in engineering.

*The term “liberal arts” is used in the report as a description for majors in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

The publication of this report was supported with grants from The National Endowment for the Humanities, the Spencer Foundation, and the Teagle Foundation.