Humanities Graduates Are Happy With Their Lives

A new survey found that more than 90 percent of graduates are happy with their lives, despite all the pundits who say they shouldn’t be.

November 8, 2021
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Articles suggesting that humanities graduates are poor or unhappy are abundant. But the opposite is true.

According to a 2019 Gallup poll cited in a new report by the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 90 percent of humanities graduates are happy with their lives, about the same as graduates of other fields.

The report attempts to look at various data to answer why.

“Data reveal that humanities graduates are similar to college graduates generally in whether they consider key aspects of work important. Humanities majors, however, were less likely than business or health/medical sciences graduates to consider salary ‘very important,’” the report says. “And humanities graduates were less likely than their counterparts in education or health/medical sciences to consider making a contribution to society very important, but they were substantially more likely than business majors to value it.”

One important consideration, the report says, is that humanities graduates work in a wide variety of fields, counter to “the stereotype of humanities majors as baristas.”

The report says, “Contrary to the stereotype, humanities graduates -- even those without advanced degrees -- are widely distributed across occupational categories, similar to college graduates generally and those from the science disciplines.” Humanities graduates work in management, in sales, in business and in technology, not just the expected categories of education or the arts.

On salaries, the report acknowledges that among those with a terminal bachelor’s degree, their wages are less than some other fields.

“Median annual earnings for workers with a terminal bachelor’s degree in the humanities stood at $58,000 in 2018, which was somewhat below the median for all college graduates ($63,000) but similar to the earnings for graduates from the behavioral/social and life sciences and considerably higher than those with a baccalaureate degree in education ($46,000),” the report says. “While humanities graduates’ earnings were lower than those for engineering, business, and some science graduates, they were much higher than those of workers who lack a bachelor’s degree -- both those with an associate’s degree or some college ($45,000) and those with only a high school diploma ($38,000).”

Some humanities graduates share the beliefs of graduates of other fields that they could use more money, but only some of them.

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“With the exception of engineering on the high side and the arts on the low side, from 46 percent to 55 percent of each field’s graduates agreed they had ‘enough money to do everything I want to do,’” the report says. “Graduates from the humanities, arts, and behavioral/social sciences were similar in that less than half of graduates felt they had enough money, while slightly more than 40 percent had worried about money.”

Robert B. Townsend, co-director of the Humanities Indicators project, said the data in the report were all collected in 2018 and 2019, prior to the pandemic. But he said that “past experience tracking this sort of data for the humanities -- particularly through the Great Recession -- gives us little reason to expect a significant shift in values over the medium term.”

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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