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American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Two reports on outcomes for humanities majors could serve to reinforce two disparate beliefs about the field: one where they are seen as a viable path to a successful career, and another where they are seen as a track to a low income and few job prospects.

On average, humanities majors do earn less than graduates in many other disciplines, according to the report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. But that doesn't mean they are starving artists or underemployed baristas.

Another report released this week from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) out of Indiana University also showed generally positive signs for recent graduates of arts departments, who largely reported feeling prepared to continue in advanced degree programs, able to find work related to their field of study, and satisfied with their jobs.

The humanities indicators report from the American Academy draws from U.S. Census data through the American Community Survey to look at the earnings of workers who studied in humanities fields.

In 2012, the annual median salary for humanities bachelor’s degree holders was $51,000, below the median -- $56,000 -- for all workers whose highest level of education was a bachelor's degree, but well above that of workers who had less than a bachelor’s degree -- $35,000.

The data also reinforce the wider research on the gap in earnings between genders across all disciplines.

For men with bachelor’s degrees in the humanities, the median salary was $58,000, or 69 percent of the median for men in engineering, the group with the highest earnings.

For women, the median salary was $45,000, or 62 percent of the median for women with bachelor’s degrees in engineering.

The gender gap varies depending on the discipline, from 15 percent in linguistics and comparative language and literature to 39 percent in U.S. history. History was the highest-paid humanities discipline for men ($66,000), but one of the lowest for women ($40,000). Over all, the 21 percent pay gap for the humanities as a group falls in the middle of the range among different academic fields.

But since humanities majors are disproportionately female, the gender pay statistics are concerning, said Robert Townsend, director of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Townsend was hesitant to classify the overall earnings data as good or bad news for the humanities, saying people can interpret the numbers as they see fit.

“To me, it suggests that humanities majors aren’t taking a vow of poverty by going into the field,” Townsend said.

Still, he expects the stereotype of humanities as a low-paying field to live on, mainly because humanities majors do tend to earn less than others.

“If you simply place a premium on these earnings numbers, then yes, the humanities will look worse,” he said. “But you really have to look more broadly on the role they’re playing in society.”

The report also shows a significant boost in earnings for those who studied humanities and earned advanced degrees. The census data don't break down advanced degrees by discipline, so the data include those who earned advanced degrees in humanities and those who left the humanities to pursue other fields.

One common example, Townsend said, is the history or philosophy major who uses humanities studies as a springboard for law school.

The median earnings for all humanities majors who earned an advanced degree was $71,000. Men reported a median salary of $81,000, compared to $63,000 for women.

There’s about a 40 percent increase in earnings for both men and women who have advanced degrees, representing $23,000 more for men and $17,000 more for women.

An advanced degree has the greatest effect in area, ethnic and civilization studies, where it adds a median $33,000, or 73 percent, in earnings. On the other end is linguistics and comparative literature, where an advanced degree brings in $14,000 more, an boost of 29 percent.

Arts Alumni Report Decent Preparation

The arts alumni report is based on survey responses from more than 88,000 alumni with degrees in more than a dozen disciplines that fall under an arts umbrella.

About half of recent graduates (those who finished their degree in the past five years) who weren't working as professional artists said it was because they could find higher-paying or steadier jobs in other fields.

But the survey also showed that recent graduates are more likely than older ones to feel that in college they learned skills, such as networking and financial management, that could benefit them in a variety of careers.

That’s an area that needs improvement, though, as there are still large numbers of students who don’t feel they’re being trained in those areas, wrote Steven Tepper, research director for SNAAP, in an introduction for the annual report.

Thirty percent of recent graduates reported that their institution helped them “some” or “very much” to acquire entrepreneurial skills, and 25 percent reported that for business management skills.

“We must be equally committed to training our students in how to make art as well as how to make it as an artist, or how to deploy their artistic skills in other fields they pursue,” Tepper wrote.

Sixty-four percent of recent grads were in jobs they described as either "very relevant" or "relevant" to their educational training, which is similar to or better than the rates for their peers in other fields, according to the report.  

More than half of recent arts graduates reported pursuing an additional degree, and of those, about 40 percent said they were “very well” prepared. Another 40 percent said they were “fairly well” prepared.

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