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How a liberal arts degree pays off: Increased earnings, a mindset for future learning

Rain starts to fall on Liberal Arts and Science majors Alendra Harris, left, and Samantha Laverdiere before the 2013 University of Maine, Orono graduation ceremony at Alfond Arena Saturday, May 11 2013.
Rain starts to fall on Liberal Arts and Science majors Alendra Harris, left, and Samantha Laverdiere before the 2013 University of Maine, Orono graduation ceremony at Alfond Arena Saturday, May 11 2013. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 11, 2014, at 11:44 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 11, 2014, at 1:56 p.m.

A cartoon making the rounds recently in higher-education circles highlights the deepening discussion over which college degrees are more lucrative for college graduates. The cartoon was created by artist Danny Shanahan and printed in The New Yorker magazine in 2007, yet it remains surprisingly timely. An older man wearing a pinstriped outfit sits in an easy chair in his living room, smoking a cigar and with a martini perched on a nearby table.

“And just how do you expect to become a made man, son, without a solid liberal-arts education?” he asks a gawky male adolescent standing in front of him, suggesting that the road to true success and fortune is with an art history or philosophy degree.

It’s a funny cartoon, especially given the intense emphasis of late on the need for improved science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education and the general impression, particularly among anxious parents facing large tuition payments, that anyone with a degree in the arts, humanities, or social sciences most likely will find his or her career path meandering through coffee shops or convenience and big-box stores.

A new report issued last month by the Association of American Colleges and Universities suggests, however, that Shanahan’s cartoon has more truth to it than first appears. The report, titled “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment,” analyzes U.S. Census data on long-term earnings and employment rates for liberal-arts graduates.

The results? A humanities and social science major still is a worthwhile choice for American college students, the report concluded.

“Recent attacks on the liberal arts by ill-informed commentators and policy makers have painted a misleading picture of the value of the liberal arts to individuals and our communities,” stated AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider in a press release. “As the findings in this report demonstrate, majoring in a liberal arts field can and does lead to successful and remunerative careers in a wide array of professions.”

In a previous OpEd column, I’ve noted the need for a real balance between the humanities and sciences without sacrificing support for either area of study. We need the humanities as much as STEM because they enrich us by offering tools that help us to examine and make sense of the human experience and to ask fundamental questions of value, purpose and meaning in a rigorous and systematic way.

College grads who successfully complete their humanities education not only leave with a degree; they leave with the liberal-arts mindset. They gain broad-based knowledge and a world perspective, along with cultural literacy; they gain problem-solving and questioning skills; they learn in-depth reading and writing skills; and they have critical-analysis and interpretation abilities.

This mindset, as the AAC&U report concludes, has real-world, economic value. Among its key findings: At peak earning ages (56-60), liberal arts majors annually earn more than professional or pre-professional majors; unemployment rates are low for liberal arts majors and decline over time; liberal arts majors disproportionately pursue social-services careers, much needed by society; and about 40 percent of liberal arts majors get advanced degrees, boosting their annual earnings by nearly $20,000.

In other words, humanities graduates are acquiring important skills that benefit them financially. They are learning what employers want them to learn. They are getting hired and remaining employed, and they are qualified to continue their educations in graduate and professional programs. In other words, liberal-arts graduates, overall, can be financially successful.

Given that students today will change jobs, or even careers, on average seven times during their lives, highly specific, professionally focused undergraduate majors often can be assured of obsolescence. The liberal arts degree offers, on the other hand, real and generalized knowledge and skills that most employers covet in their workers.

They lay a foundation for future learning in the professions.

Fortunately, the AAC&U report has been getting a good deal of national media attention, with reports showing up in such media outlets as Chronicle of Higher Education, WGBH Public Radio, CNBC.com and Forbes.com. It’s my sincere hope that it gets even more general notice to put an end to the needless comparisons between the humanities and STEM.

I especially hope that parents who are worried about their child’s education and future pick up the report. We need more moms and dads asking: “And just how do you expect to become a made person without a solid liberal-arts education?”

Lynn Kuzma is dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Southern Maine and an associate professor in the USM department of history and political science.

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