In recent years, a variety of forces have converged to generate an intense focus among policy makers and members of the general public alike on the employment outcomes of college graduates. One question probed repeatedly is whether college is "still worth it" in an economy that has been jarred by a deep recession and hindered by a painfully slow recovery. It is both understandable and appropriate that this question is being raised, and it is important that policy makers and members of the general public have as full a picture as possible of the relevant evidence in order to answer it. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems are grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Spencer Foundation, and the Teagle Foundation for the funding support that makes it possible to provide this analysis of data on the economic returns of earning a college degree.
The Liberal Arts and Career Opportunity
A second question being raised with new urgency is whether specific college majors are a good investment for individuals seeking long-term career success and for policy makers seeking to shepherd scarce resources as wisely as possible. In this context, majors in the humanities and social sciences—the so-called "liberal arts"—have become targets for special scrutiny and potential budget cuts. Governors, policy leaders, and legislators at both the federal and state levels have singled out specific humanities and social science fields, identifying them as poor choices for undergraduate majors and decrying as wasteful the investment of public money in associated academic departments. Perhaps reflecting that judgment, and in an effort to reduce spending, some institutions of higher education have moved recently to eliminate departments in humanities and social science fields such as philosophy, history, sociology, and foreign languages.
In How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths, Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly address the concerns about whether college is still worth it and whether "liberal arts" majors provide a solid foundation for long-term employment and career success. Responding directly to the recent assaults on the humanities and social sciences, this 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 such as business or education. Readers who value the liberal arts will, we believe, find the results reassuring.
There is a much larger case—beyond the purely vocational or economic case—to be made for study in the humanities and social sciences, of course. These fields build the capacity to understand our collective histories, ideals, aspirations, and social systems. They are indispensable to the vitality of our democracy and to the future of global understanding, engagement, and community. The American Academy's Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences makes that larger case succinctly and persuasively in its recent report, The Heart of the Matter (2013). AAC&U, too, has focused on the learning students need both for democracy and for global community, publishing reports such as Ashley Finley's Making Progress? What We Know about the Achievement of Liberal Education Outcomes (2012), the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement's A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future (2012), and the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise's College Learning for the New Global Century (2007). These reports foreground the centrality of the humanities and social sciences to societal vitality and also provide extensive evidence to show that far too many graduates leave college knowing much less about democracy and global cultures than they need to know.
Here, however, Humphreys and Kelly focus more narrowly on the economic concerns and debates of our time. They seek to enlarge the debate about earnings, which frequently focuses too selectively on salaries achieved in the first few years out of college—information based on incomplete data and that is, therefore, frequently misleading.
Using data from a statistically significant weighted sample of more than three million respondents to the US Census Bureau's American Community Survey, How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment provides evidence that, in strictly economic terms, college is, indeed, still a reliable pathway to a solid income and to career progression. Even in today's difficult economic environment, most college graduates are employed and are earning significantly higher salaries than those who completed high school only.
The findings presented in this report speak directly to alarmist concerns that graduates who majored in humanities or social science fields are unemployed and unemployable. Those concerns are unfounded and should be put to rest.
The report also shows the extent to which degree holders in the 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. In a public statement issued in November 2013 in response to President Obama's proposed college ratings system, AAC&U raised concerns about schemes designed to rate institutions by graduates' median salary levels, pointing out that, if enacted, they would have the effect of "rewarding" institutions with many engineering and technology graduates and "punishing" institutions whose graduates pursue jobs in public service, teaching, and social services—fields our society has chosen to compensate less well.
This report helps us see which fields would be left depleted—at high cost to our communities—were the United States, in fact, to defund humanities and social science departments and turn away from liberal arts studies at the college level.
It Takes More Than a Major
Finally, consistent with its focus on wages, employability, and career trajectories, the report also includes recent findings about employers' views on the kinds of learning that make a graduate employable and promotable. Employers themselves are reminding higher education that "it takes more than a major" to both contribute to and prosper in an economy that is constantly adapting to new challenges, new technologies, and new forms of competition. Employers seek graduates who are ready to help them innovate. In this context, they privilege broad learning over narrow learning, and they seek the capacity to engage cultural diversity as one of their top three requirements for new hires. They also seek graduates with "cross-functional" proficiencies, meaning that these learners are not limited to one particular disciplinary frame of reference, but rather can work adaptively and integrate across disparate fields of expertise and enterprise.
In other words, whatever a student's undergraduate major, employers overwhelmingly agree that all college graduates need broad knowledge, a portfolio of intellectual and practical skills, and hands-on experience in order to be well prepared for successful careers. We do students a significant disservice if we convey the message that selecting the "right" major is the primary key to career opportunity and success. In that sense, the current debate about majors and career opportunity has been too narrowly framed from the outset.
Still, in a season of mounting anxiety about how to maximize the benefits of college study for individuals and for our society, it is important to address the economic questions and the anxieties about college and major fields of study directly. Policy makers and members of the general public alike deserve the opportunity to examine the data on the economic returns from college study in as full a context as possible.
In this spirit, we thank both Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly for the time and care they have given to this research and to the preparation of this report.
Carol Geary Schneider
President, Association of American Colleges and Universities
Vice President, National Center for Higher Education Management Systems