Op-ed: Humanities degrees are underrated

Contrary to popular belief, humanities degrees are in high demand by employers

Policies aimed at boosting STEM education belie the fact that liberal arts degrees often have a high return on investment and solid career prospects, Jeffrey Dorfman writes for Forbes.

States are increasingly rewarding institutions for promoting majors in STEM fields, often while disparaging the liberal arts. 

A number of Republican lawmakers have also portrayed liberal arts education as unnecessary or impractical. While Democrats have been less critical of the humanities, they tend to agree that education should lead to more lucrative job prospects.

The recently released College Scorecard rates U.S. colleges and universities on measures such as completion rates, student loan debt, and post-graduation earnings. Many states already use performance-based goals that more closely link higher education funding to certain outcomes such as degrees earned.

"The logic behind such proposals is that state funding should be concentrated on where it provides the highest return on investment, so humanities and other majors perceived as leading to low-paying jobs don't deserve the investment," Dorfman says.

But this line of thinking is flawed on two points, he argues. Dorfman notes that state taxpayers invest in higher education subsidies with the knowledge that their children will collect on those contributions when they attend college, and that liberal arts degrees often have a strong return on investment. For example, most humanities degrees have a projected lifetime earnings gain of more than $400,000, he says.

While turning out in-demand graduates is a worthy goal, Dorfman says, "surveys of employers consistently find that companies want employees who can think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems. These are hallmarks of classical educations, in other words, humanities degrees."

Those with humanities degrees also tend to earn as much as those with professional or pre-professional majors such as business, pre-law, and nursing, according to a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Not only do humanities majors have higher starting salaries than most people realize, but those in the liberal arts also tend to earn more salary-boosting graduate degrees.

"STEM majors do indeed often find a welcoming job market upon graduation ... [but] many non-STEM majors also lead to high-paying jobs, graduate school, and rewarding careers," Dorfman says. He suggests that leaders interested in making sure graduates can get jobs should not shuffle students into STEM—but rather, ensure that every student takes classes that teach broadly applicable job skills like crucial thinking and communication (Dorfman, Forbes, 3/3).

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