The multidimensional threats to education in the United States and the United Kingdom, and to higher education and to the humanities in particular, require our urgent attention. It’s frankly hard to keep up, between pressure against or outright prohibition on whole approaches to knowledge or sets of information such as we are seeing with legislation in places in Florida, and cuts to university departments in English, Languages, and History, among other humanities disciplines. Humanities organizations are issuing a regular drumbeat of statements of alarm, with the Royal Historical Society (RHS) describing cuts to history at Oxford Brookes as “in terms of extent, rapidity and impact, the cuts and job losses proposed…remarkably severe” and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) describing the cuts at West Virginia University as “unprecedented for a public flagship and dangerous for American higher education and society.”
Why should Scholarly Kitchen readers pay attention to these threats, never mind consider them as urgent? As professionals invested in the value of research to the public good, we should always take notice when a research sector is under fire; after all, when there are fewer humanities researchers, there will simply be less humanities research to publish. (The RHS statement about Oxford Brookes points to this outcome specifically, to take just one recent example.) There is more to this, though. The multidimensional character of these threats means they already apply more widely than the humanities; already we see often highly politicized opposition to higher education generally, or to the structure of universities, or to the research enterprise in toto being leveraged to make changes to university curricula and mission. Though the majority of scholarly publishing is focused not just on STEM but biomedical research, this is about all of us, and it always has been.
One of the most frustrating narratives about the humanities is the claim that the liberal arts more broadly, or humanities concentrators specifically, have poor employment prospects and outcomes. The claim is that these areas of concentration for college students do not provide adequate preparation for employment, nor translate either into jobs post graduation or into well paying careers. This characterization is, by the available data, wrong. But that hasn’t stopped lazy and, to echo the ACLS’s terminology, dangerous repetition of these tired tropes. New York Times reporter Anemona Hartocollis, for example framed a recent story about current or proposed budget cuts to the humanities by noting that,
“For years, economists and more than a few worried parents have argued over whether a liberal arts degree is worth the price. The debate now seems to be over, and the answer is “no.” Not only are public officials…questioning state support for the humanities, a growing number of universities, often aided by outside consultants, are now putting many cherished departments — art history, American studies — on the chopping block. They say they are facing headwinds, including students who are fleeing to majors more closely aligned to employment.”
That phrase “they say” is doing an awful lot of work here.
The data really does say otherwise. A new study from the Humanities Indicators (HI) Project, “a nationally recognized source of nonpartisan information on the state of the humanities” from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), looks at the relationship between humanities majors and employment in each of the 50 states. This new report, “Humanities Outcomes for Humanities Majors: State Outcomes” complements the HI work on national humanities employment data and trends. The short version is that humanities majors have much better employment experience than those without college degrees, that their compensation is similar to other college graduates (with the exception of engineering), and that their unemployment rate is comparable to other majors and much better than those without college degrees. As Robert Townsend, the AAAS program director for humanities, arts, and culture told the Chronicle of Higher Education, this study was promoted by requests from a broad constituency interested in getting better, more detailed information about what had often been caricatured as “you might as well not even get a degree if you’re going to get a humanities degree [or]… the comparison to the engineering graduates, who are in a class by themselves as far as earnings.”
The state level data is offered in two formats: a graphics-rich profile, and an explainer. I looked at the state data for my native commonwealth of Virginia, and my new home, Rhode Island. Then I looked at the data for two states with recent or recently announced restructuring plans that have targeted the humanities, North Carolina and West Virginia. A few caveats, of course. First, I don’t associate the value of the humanities – or education – with employment. Employment is also important, but there are benefits to education that confer to society as a whole. That’s for another post. Second, the majors or concentrators are only one way to think about how the humanities serve students. Even if we confine ourselves to classes taken, the majority of students who benefit from humanities courses will not major or concentrate in the humanities. Again, that’s for another post. And third, humanities research conducted by university faculty has richly rewarded societies in lots of ways – and lots of ways we don’t yet know about. That’s how research works. Again, for another post.
Even with these caveats in mind, turning to the state examples I chose, what struck me first of all how, given differences in state economies, is how consistent the picture is for humanities majors. In Virginia, 46% of the state’s full-time workers have a bachelor’s (or 4 year) degree; 13% of those have a bachelor’s degree in a humanities field. For Rhode Island the comparable figures are 40% and 14%. In Virginia, those humanities graduates have median salaries 88% higher than workers with only a high school diploma; in Rhode Island it’s 65% higher. Virginia’s humanities majors have an unemployment rate of 3%, “similar to other college graduates,” while high school graduates have an unemployment rate of 5%. A very similar picture emerged for Rhode Island, where the comparable numbers are 3% and 7%. The analysis is drawn from five years (2017-21) of the United States Census Bureau’s “American Community Survey.”
For West Virginia, only 30% of the full-time workforce has a bachelor’s degree, with just 8% of those in the humanities; 38% and 11% respectively in North Carolina. In West Virginia, the median salary for a college graduate is 44% higher than a high school-only graduate; it’s 67% in North Carolina. In both West Virginia and North Carolina, just 3% of those humanities majors are unemployed compared to 8% and 6% respectively of the high school graduates in the workforce.
A clear commonality across the states I looked at is the areas where humanities majors are employed. For Virginia, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and North Carolina, the largest share of humanities graduates (20%, 17%, 20%, 17%) are employed in education. Seems pretty important? Interestingly, among lawyers in the latter two states, 22% and 26% respectively had earned college degrees in the humanities. While states are the unit of political decision making and public higher ed budget allocations, there may be clear regional patterns that are important, too. In West Virginia and Virginia, for example, the contrast seems a little abrupt.
In Virginia, two strong responses to the report, from Ann Ardis, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University (GMU), and David Rehr, director of GMU’s Center for Business Engagement and a board member for Virginia Humanities, underscored how important the data is for students and parents, for universities, but also for Virginia. Ardis expressed empathy for families who want their students to succeed not just at college but in life, and the anxiety they may feel about how the latter translates to the former. But she argues that “What can’t you do with a humanities degree” can be the question we all ask given both the experiences she and other faculty have with students’ rich learning experiences and the clear evidence in this report that humanities learning translates to “work across a broad spectrum of occupations and industries.” Rehr noted that “the project demonstrates that studying the humanities provides students with a well-positioned platform of knowledge for future careers and income opportunities.”
Even before the Humanities Indicators report was issued, more focused analyses have been demonstrating basically the same point. At Arizona State University, for example, “it turns out that your parents were wrong. English majors – and others in humanities fields often seen as even less “marketable,” like philosophy and film studies – can get great jobs right out of college,” trumpets an article in US News. In the article Jeffrey Cohen, dean of humanities at ASU talked about their internship programs and argued that “the reason why our humanities interns are wanted is because they have research and writing skills…Those skills serve companies well.” Yes, even Harvard Business Review says employers value what comes of a liberal arts education: “A student’s undergraduate experience, and how well the experience advances critical learning outcomes (knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility, integrative and applied learning), is what matters most.”
But will it matter that the narrative about humanities majors and employability is wrong? In West Virginia and North Carolina the link between the humanities and employment is shorthand for a larger set of claims about the usefulness of these disciplines, though it is often framed as a question of a student’s ROI. As Dean Ardis at GMU pointed out though, return on investment has to take into account the cost of a college education – and because the public investment in higher education keeps declining, the consequent requirement for students and families keeps climbing. West Virginia University’s President Gordon Gee has been out and about with the argument that maybe it isn’t about a lack of funding, or maybe even the employment data, but “tailor[ing] relevant academic content to specific market needs.” And by market, he seems to mean student demand. Or actually maybe just a perception of parent demand. Chancellor Frank Gillam of the University of North Carolina Greensboro rejected the value of a recent report that showed UNCG was in solid financial shape, saying “he was worried public perception will be that if the return-on-investment study shows almost all UNC system programs provide a good return on investment, there is no need for program reviews like the one now underway at UNCG.”
The slipperiness of the arguments undergirding cuts to the humanities bears close attention. The argument about the employability of college graduates who major in the humanities is just one dimension of a multidimensional threat. Basic facts and fuller information may not make the decisive difference in combating these challenges, but in an industry devoted to the benefits of research and shared knowledge we should always welcome work with the depth and quality as this new Humanities Indicators report. It’s essential reading.