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Major in English. Expect to live with Mom and Dad for life.

That’s the stereotype that is constantly reinforced by reports on the hot job prospects for nurses or code writers or various other positions for which practical training is seen as the route to economic success.

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences -- an advocate for the humanities and general education -- is today releasing a series of studies on the employability and earnings of those who majored in the humanities. The studies don’t contest that those who earn bachelor’s degrees earn less, on average, than those who major in other fields.

But the studies show that graduates with degrees in the humanities earn much more than the average for all American workers (a group that includes many without college degrees), challenging those who suggest that a degree in the humanities is a waste, at least financially. And the studies provide context both on why humanities majors earn less and on their presence in other career fields, including science and technology.

The analysis is based on data from the American Community Survey, a long-term study that tracks many things about a large sample of Americans over time.

Among the key findings:

  • In 2013, the median annual salary for humanities majors in the workforce was about $50,000 for those who held only a bachelor’s degree, and $71,000 for those who went on to earn an advanced degree in any field.
  • The median salary levels for humanities majors (with and without graduate degrees) was about $7,000 lower than those with similar degree attainment, but well above the $42,000 average for all American workers.
  • The salary differential between humanities majors and others of similar degree attainment narrows with age (and presumably workplace experience). When the median salaries of younger workers (ages 24 to 34) are compared to those with those who are older (ages 35 to 54), the gap in median salaries between the humanities and graduates from all fields narrowed by about two percentage points for those who hold only a bachelor’s degree (declining from 11.1 percent to 9.1 percent). For those who earned advanced degrees, the gap fell from 12.3 percent to 10.5 percent).
  • Humanities majors are more likely to be unemployed than are others with similar degree attainment, but the differences are slight. For those with only bachelor’s degree, humanities majors’ unemployment rate is 5.4 percent, versus 4.6 percent for others. For those with advanced degrees, the figures are 3.1 percent vs. 3.4 percent.
  • Some of the gap in salaries for terminal bachelor’s degrees in humanities vs. other fields is due to humanities majors entering professions that are more important to society than they are lucrative. Humanities majors are second only to education majors in having careers in teaching, for example.

Experts on the impact of salary and wealth would of course be correct to note that relatively modest salary gaps, over the course of a career, can create significant wealth gaps. But the academy data do suggest that, in the course of a year, the gaps may not match stereotypes and that the typical humanities major is, if not wealthy, much better off than having not obtained a bachelor’s degree at all.

While the academy released the data, it also released an essay noting the problems with relying on income analysis to judge the value of various educational programs.

In an era when the humanities are being infused into other fields, and in which humanities majors are being encouraged to pick up specialized skills, income by major may be a limited measure, writes Christine Henseler, professor and chair of modern languages and literatures at Union College.

“What would happen to the results … if they included the medical humanities, environmental humanities, programs in business ethics, studies in law or anthropology with strong humanistic content, or computer science courses that focus on the storytelling features of video game design?” writes Henswler. “When team-taught courses such as the Chemistry of Art or the Brain on Music are taught by faculty members from two different disciplines, are they included in this inventory?”

Henseler adds that policy makers have been too quick to make income the be-all and end-all of defining value.

“We have a social responsibility to reshape what really counts among all the counting. I deeply believe that the transformative and perhaps even surprising identity of tomorrow’s humanities must be built on the solidity of our century-old foundations,” she writes. “But to build an educational vision for tomorrow, we also need to capture the possibilities and the limitations of all disciplinary contributions in this era of mobility. How do they augment and enhance each other’s missions, with and without data, in a variety of learning environments? Raising just one pillar over another, as today’s conversations about the importance of STEM fields indicate, may very well make entire structures crumble to the ground.”

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