The Liberal Arts Edge

Earnings potential for Liberal Arts majors

With increasing costs associated with obtaining a college degree and higher levels of student debt, public leaders, parents, and students have begun to question the return on investment (ROI) related to higher education. The question becomes even more acute when one talks about the ROI on degrees in the liberal arts, by this we are referring to degrees in the humanities, social sciences and fine arts. Anecdotes abound suggesting that recent graduates in the liberal arts cannot find decent jobs and end up as fast food employees or baristas.  Some public leaders have even argued that obtaining these kinds of degrees is wasteful and, thus, that students in these degree tracks should pay more, not less tuition at public universities.

But do the anecdotes tell the whole story?  Will a degree in the liberal arts pay a decent ROI?

We should begin by stating that there is very little, if any, ROI on college education if a student does not graduate.  It is only when a student graduates that he or she can expect a significant ROI on his or her investment.

In 2014, the Association of American Colleges and Universities conducted a study to determine how graduates in the liberal arts fared in the job market.  In this study, researchers combed data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys from 2010 and 2011.  These records offered information on both the educational level and the occupations of about 3 million US residents ranging in age from 21 to 65.  Researchers grouped all those residents with bachelor’s degrees into four groups: those with degrees in a professional track such as business or nursing, those with degrees in science or mathematics, those with degrees in engineering, and those with degrees in the liberal arts.

What they found is that there is a definite positive ROI to earning a bachelor’s degree, no matter what the field.  In the year 2012, when the US was still recovering from the worst financial setback since the Great Depression, the rate of unemployment for bachelor’s degree graduates was 7.1% below that of persons with only a high school degree.  Moreover, since the year 2000, bachelor’s degree graduates earned on average twice the amount of annual salary than those with only high school degrees. 

In addition, it has been shown that society as a whole benefits when a greater percentage of citizens achieve the bachelor’s degree.  According to a study conducted at Michigan State University in 2013, states and regions with higher percentages of college graduates enjoy greater economic prosperity than states with lower levels of educational attainment. [ colearning/good2013_report.pdf]

It is true, of course, that the earnings potential associated with some degrees is greater than that associated with other degrees.   In 2010-11, for example, engineers in the 21 to 25 year old bracket had on average starting salaries of over $40,000, while those in the liberal arts started at around $25,000.  In peak earning years, engineers in their early 50s were earning on average over $90,000 per year, while those in the liberal arts were earning in the high 50s.  Graduates in science and mathematics earned less than engineers but more than liberal arts graduates.  What is striking, however, is that the salaries of those with professional degrees, such as nursing and business, were closely aligned with the salaries of graduates in the liberal arts.  Graduates with professional degrees started their careers at somewhat higher levels, but those in the liberal arts had nearly closed the gap by mid-career.  In addition, if one includes all those graduates who added additional graduate degrees or professional degrees to their resumés, the average salaries of liberal arts graduates toward the end of their careers actually surpassed those of graduates in the professional fields.  The average annual wage “bump” for a liberal arts major with a graduate or professional degree (approximately 40% of all liberal arts graduates) was $19,550.

To obtain a copy of this study, please see the following website:

The lesson that this study teaches is that, while recent liberal arts majors may have a more difficult time than their peers finding their first jobs in the economy, by the time these graduates are mid-career, they actually are earning very respectable wages.  What colleges must do is better prepare their students for the entry-level job market.  Liberal arts students must not only recognize but also be able to articulate the transferrable skills they have learned in their studies.  We must also offer our students more opportunities to apply their knowledge in real-world settings by increasing internship and field experience opportunities.  CLASS has made both of these goals priorities in its new strategic plan.

Finally, there is an additional non-economic ROI for graduates in the liberal arts.  The liberal arts prepare students not only to earn a living (see the related link on this web page for the transferrable skills our studies impart), but also to flourish as thoughtful citizens and partakers in the riches of world-wide arts and culture.