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Liberal Arts Proponents Fight Back Against the Haters


The number of graduates majoring in the humanities and social sciences in the U.S. has declined in recent years, and liberal arts institutions are making a concerted effort to change the perception that humanities and social science degrees cannot lead to profitable careers.

Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts 

(Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts, Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr)

The humanities are “under pressure” in both the United States and abroad, laments the Humanities Project, an 18-month-long study conducted by Harvard University. “[E]conomic and vocational forces in particular challenge the study of the Humanities at the undergraduate level,” according to the report, which also claims that bachelor’s degrees in the humanities decreased 50 percent nationwide between 1996 and 2010. 

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Liberal arts programs as a whole have gotten a bad rap in the press and academia in recent years, with critics and studies disparaging the career prospects and profitability of degrees in the humanities and social sciences. 

According to the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, for example, the unemployment rate was 9.8 percent among college grads who majored in English in 2010 and 2011, compared to 5.8 percent of students who majored in chemistry. 

Many students seem to have taken heed of the warnings, and shifted the course of their coursework accordingly: only 7 percent of U.S. graduates majored in humanities in 2010, for example, and humanities grads at Harvard fell from 36 percent in 1954 to 20 percent in 2012. 

Similarly, the University of Maryland at College Park has graduated around 40 percent fewer English majors since 2012. (Incidentally, Harvard was ranked at the top of the list in PayScale’s report on the best schools by salary potential for humanities majors.)

Some sources blame the falling numbers on lower enrollment in introductory undergraduate courses in fundamental subjects like history and English, due to an increase in the number of students arriving to college already armed with AP, dual enrollment, and International Baccalaureate credits in these categories.

Louisiana State University College of Humanities and Social Sciences, for example, has seen a steady increase in the number of students entering the school with history credits already in the academic bank: 258 students in 2005, to 1,247 students in 2014 (not including spring admissions), according to the school’s dean, Stacia Haynie

Because intro-level courses often pique a passion that could lead to advanced coursework and academic concentrations, some students might be missing out on a possible career path in a liberal arts-related field. 

Many deans and other proponents of the value of a liberal arts education are challenging the idea that liberal arts degrees can’t lead to profitable careers by coming back with studies and arguments of their own. 

“Whatever undergraduate major they may choose, students who pursue their major within the context of a broad liberal education substantially increase their likelihood of achieving long-term professional success,” enthuses a report on the relationship between employment and liberal arts and sciences majors released by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) in 2014.

According to AAC&U’s analysis, workers in their peak earning age range (56-60) with undergraduate degrees in humanities or social sciences earn an average of $2,000 more per year than those who majored in professional or pre-professional fields. The report also claims that the the unemployment rates among liberal arts grads is not as dire as others have claimed: 5.2 percent among recent grads and 3.5 percent among workers between 41-50, which is only .04 percent higher than the grads with professional or pre-professional degrees.

According to a massive 2013 report on the value of liberal arts ideology and education, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that 51 percent of employers “endorse the concept of a liberal education” as “very important,” while 43 percent believe that its “fairly important” and 6 percent call it “somewhat important.”

As well as statistical data, advocates like AAA&S have responded with more philosophical arguments for the importance of liberal arts and the critical thinking skills that they induce: 

“The sciences are the ‘how,’ and the humanities are the ‘why,'” laments Director George Lucas in a short AAA&S film that has racked nearly 55,000 hits on Vimeo. “Why are we here? Why do we believe in the things we believe in? I don’t think you can have the how without the why.”

The Heart of the Matter from americanacad on Vimeo.

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What is your take on the role that humanities and liberal arts plays (or should play) in higher education? We want to hear from you. Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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