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.

sign reading "humanities" on a concrete wall

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.

Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf is the Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian at the John Carter Brown Library and Professor of History, Brown University. She is a historian with a research specialty in family, gender and politics in eighteenth-century British America and has experience in non-profit humanities publishing.


21 Thoughts on "Humanities and Jobs Data: What’s the Real Story?"

The point about lawyers in Va & WVa was interesting. Otherwise, I was surprised to see employment of those with humanities degrees compared to employment of high school graduates. In that case, seems appropriate to add on comparison of debt load. But wouldn’t it be more relevant to compare to employment of those with other college degrees in other subjects?

You can look at the very compelling materials Humanities Indicators has compiled — I pulled out just a small set for this piece. The short version is that humanities is comparable to all other majors –except engineering. But you can see a more granular level in the links.

This data supports what I had been feeling for some time, which is that a small number of high-profile incidents involving students from humanities, social sciences and related fields tend to have a disproportionate negative impact on the perceived image of these fields as a whole.

So long as students are able to experience the joy of exploring their deep-held passions within the fields of humanities, social sciences, liberal arts, etc., they will feel that they are getting their value’s worth. Likewise, if they feel that enrolling in these courses has contributed to their self-development, a greater sense of self-worth, and a meaningful improvement in their abilities to organize their thoughts and communicate them to others in a constructive manner, then they will certainly be valued by prospective employers.

Based on this data, it seems to me that indeed, in the majority of universities. many of the humanities, social science, liberal arts majors are still delivering these core skills, values, experiences to most of the students. And this is perhaps the reason why the employment situation is still showing some positive signs. Still, I can’t help but feel that the overall image of these disciplines has been irreparably damaged by a few incidents. Judging from merely anecdotal experience (i.e., people that I talk to), people often feel that these majors tend to encourage students to form compulsive habits focused on negative emotions such as resentment, anger, suspicion towards others, fear, etc., making them supposedly unappealing to employers.

Just my 2 cents. In any case, thank you for summarizing this data.

I wish I could agree. I hold a Doctorate in Philosophy and teach introductory courses online after retiring from a career in financial services. I enjoy my work with students, especially helping them grow their critical thinking and improve their reading comprehension and university-level writing skills. This is the state of affairs in non-elite universities. At the top of enrollment for online degrees, this university closed its Phil Dept some time ago for “financial” reasons – the university did not have sufficient numbers of majors and minors to warrant the expense. The good news is that 4/5th of my students got more from the course than they bargained for and said so. The experience of doing philosophy far exceeds their expectations or the reputation of non-STEM programs in their peer groups. Yes, it’s a bit of a holiday from their future career-based studies and far from any ambition to pursue a liberal arts education.

My anecdotal two cents is the cost of university education is so burdensome that the luxury of developing one’s mind for students from working-class families is out of the question. My own doctorate is from Binghamton U at a time when Regent Scholarships paid tuition, and the cost of living was less than half of what it is today. I come from a modest economic background, and the luxury of developing my mind was affordable if less than prudent in the eyes of my elders.

Thank you for sharing your personal story, I don’t really have any insightful thing to say right now, other than I really respect the effort you are putting into teaching your students. It’s often the passion that you put behind the teaching that really appeals to students on an initial level, before they have even had time to get deep into the intricacies and explore themselves through philosophy. I’m also sorry to hear about the struggles you are facing, and I’ve certainly had similar experiences as yours. If we translate our situations into the jargon used by startups, our teaching of humanities subjects could be compared to a product that is viewed as “nice to have” but not a “critical material need.” I personally think that in opposition to STEM subjects that can have a decent impact on material well-being, Humanities can contribute greatly to the mental well-being of people if we do our jobs right. The tough part is to convince others, of course. Wish you all the best in your career!

One of the huge problems in higher education is that graduate programs make money for departments and with state governments starving higher ed, they are letting in WAY more students than can find jobs. It’s so unethical. That said, we have stories in a book we wrote about the humanities from a number of philosophy majors and they are some of the brightest entrepreneurial minds in tech. The mind training that you give those students is invaluable. So, I’m so sorry that a job in higher ed didn’t work out for you, but I’m so grateful that you’re still there helping students grow in ways that no other discipline can achieve. Thank you for that.

Thanks so much for your comments, Joe– the issue you raise at the end, about the burdensome cost of college, is the other piece of that ROI calculus that rarely gets addressed as fully as it should. The declining public investment in higher education (the privatized cost of a public good, my dad used to say) is terrible, and driving that reduced confidence in higher education. A vicious and accelerating cycle.

This is hugely refreshing to read — thank you! Flipping the question to “what can you *not* do with a Liberal Arts degree?” is so relevant. I ask it whenever I speak with students at the fantastic state university where I earned my BA. (English was the most popular major when I was earning my degree there but nowadays it is Business.)

There’s numerous problems with your analysis and I don’t think you’ve made your point well. Here’s some of the problems I see:

1. You compare unemployment rates between humanities grads and high school grads.

This doesn’t say much about the value of a humanities degree, but more likely says something about just having a college degree at all. And it may not even be the college degree so much as psychometric difference in people that have degrees versus not. You’d expect degree holders to have a higher IQ, be more conscientious and industrious, and have lower rates of criminal activity compared to non-degree holders, and it’s these things that would be the difference here, not a humanities degree.

2. You don’t control for age groups.

Boomers with a humanities degree were entering a much more favorable market where degrees in general weren’t overbought, so they benefitted much more from point #1: Having a degree at all was the main benefit. Since then their experience, rather than their degree, carries them into higher paying positions. You want to stick to data over the past 10 years. Look at today’s market and what new degree holders can expect.

3. You don’t look at actual income nor do you look at ROI on a humanities degree.

This is the most important point and its exclusion is such an egregious error that I suspect it’s deliberate. We both know that income for humanities majors is significantly lower than STEM degrees, especially if you control for age groups. The ROI on humanities degrees may even be negative…as in you’re better off with just a high school degree once your debt and four years of not working are included in the analysis.

4. You focus on professionals who have a higher terminal degree than their humanities degree.

This isn’t really a fair analysis, because now you’re talking about having a law degree, medical, or something else. It’s not the humanities degree that’s making the money, it’s the professional degree. And no, a humanities degree isn’t necessary to get into law school…you only need a Bachelor’s degree in general.

The bottom line is expected income and ROI data. Not including that means you’re really avoiding the issue!

Your questions are fair ones. But to be fair to the author, they cannot write a book in a blog post. We, however, did write that book and so here’s what I can tell you about those numbers.

1. You compare unemployment rates between humanities grads and high school grads.

Here are some numbers comparing humanities degrees to other disciplines. These numbers are pre-Covid because our book was published in 2020, but the data that the author cites (as well as other recent studies) makes it clear that even after Covid, these numbers are pretty much the same. And to be honest, I was afraid to look at that data post-Covid for fear that employers would fall back the most common degrees, like business, and not give humanities students a chance. But much to my surprise, that did not happen. The numbers are still good. This is a just a sample. If you want more comparisons, you can find that data pretty easily with a little research.

According the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, earning $53,000 in 2015, the much-maligned English major averages only $1000 less than a molecular biology major or history majors, $4,000 more than a psychology or fine arts major, and $5,000 more than a neuroscience major. This is pretty much the case for all degrees in the humanities. Unsurprisingly, the highest salary projections are in STEM fields. But note that the humanities average is $56,688, which is nearly equal to business. In addition, while students to graduate with engineering degrees start up about $10,000 more than humanities students, the salaries for engineers tend to stall out after about 10 years because technology changes and new students coming out of college are better suited for those new opportunities in engineering. So, if an engineer does not go into upper management, their salary typically stalls after only 10 years. That is not the case for students in humanities, however. Their salaries do not stall generally and they increase significantly with additional education, such as law or graduate school.

2. You don’t control for age groups.

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (2015) also has data for this concern. They analyzed the median annual earnings for four areas for college graduates directly out of college and in peak earning years.

Median annual earnings for new college graduates with a degree in a humanities or social science field are slightly higher than those with a physical or natural sciences or mathematics degree and only slightly lower than those with a baccalaureate degree in a professional or pre-professional field. In addition, humanities majors tend to start out earning less money than graduates in a number of other areas, but those numbers even out with time and/or with additional education. In fact, the median annual earnings for those between the ages of 56 and 60 with a baccalaureate degree in humanities or social sciences is $2,000 higher per year than those in a professional or pre-professional field. And though it’s fair to recognize that the years when humanities students are making a little less perhaps cannot be recouped by everyone, humanities students are still a far cry from living in poverty, regardless of whether we’re talking about salaries right after college or salaries in their peak earning years.

3. You don’t look at actual income nor do you look at ROI on a humanities degree.

With the data I’ve given you above, the math is easy. The ROI on a humanities degree is just as strong as any other degree because salaries are pretty much the same, and in many cases higher, than students in things like math or molecular biology. The big myths is that everyone needs to be a STEM major in order to get a great ROI. But you will be hard-pressed to find any actual scholarly data that shows there has ever been a STEM crisis. In fact, one of the top workforce analyst at Harvard, Michael Teitelbaum, has written extensively on this issue and if you Google him you can find a good number of YouTube videos where he is talking about the data.. The fake “STEM crisis” was a creation of industry in order to increase supply so that wages would go down. As a result, not only do 50% of STEM graduates not actually work in STEM fields, their salaries started declining or staying the same years ago. The other reason why industry tried to convince everyone, that there is a STEM crisis is so that they could hire more H1B visa’s, who are people from other countries that they can pay for less money and over whom they can have extreme power because if an employee causes any issues or complains, they can just send them home. Google “Disney engineers 2015 fired” and you will learn that Disney replaced 250 computer engineers with foreign workers only after they had the United States workers train those new employees. That’s a major reason why industry pushed the ridiculous and patently untrue narrative that there was a general STEM crisis in our country. They wanted to lower wages and they were successful. They wanted to bring in more H1B visa holders so that they hire fewer US college graduates and they were successful. The sad thing is that everyone from the President of the United States to pretty much every college administrators believed that narrative without ever bothering to look at data that wasn’t created by industry lobbying groups. You will be hard-pressed to find any actual scholarly data by workforce analysts that tells you there is a general STEM crisis (there are shortages in very, very few STEM fields) or that there ever has been. So while the perception is the ROI of a STEM degree is fantastic, that is simply not the case. It is not much better, if any better at all, than a humanities degree. And when you see huge engineering salaries compared to an English salary of $53,000, check which engineering degree they are talking about. That rhetoric usually compares the highest paying engineering degrees, such as petroleum engineering, rather than using aggregate salary data for all engineers. Most students don’t have the STEM skills to be petroleum engineers. It’s pure rhetoric without any data to support it, it was designed to hurt US workers in STEM, and it worked.

4. You focus on professionals who have a higher terminal degree than their humanities degree.

The data I gave you above shows that it doesn’t really matter if they don’t have a higher terminal degree, humanity students do just fine in terms of salary. That said, most people who do extremely well in their fields do have additional education. Business students who want to move up higher typically get an MBA. STEM majors who want to earn more typically get an M.S. or Ph.D. 33% of world leaders are humanities or social sciences majors as undergraduates. And at the time we wrote the book (and when I checked again a year or so ago) some of the most recognizable companies have CEOs or founders with a humanities background, including American Express,, Whole Foods, Campbell’s Soup, Chipotle, FedEx, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Merck. What that tells us is that humanities degrees prepare students to go into some of the highest paying fields and they are prepared to do so because of the mind training that happens in the humanities. We do not train students for specific jobs. We train students to do whatever it is they want to do, save certain professional fields like medicine. Even accounting firms in financial industries are hiring humanities graduates because humanities graduates are typically much better in interpersonal and written communication skills. We have a story in our book about a financial office in Chicago who prefers to hire humanities students because anyone can be trained to use computer systems to do the math of financial training and accounting, but not everyone can be an excellent communicator and build relationships. That’s the new important currency in this job market, the ability to form relationships and build wealth for a company through your interpersonal and public and writing communications skills. We also have a lot of stories in our book about humanities majors who have gone on to do amazing things and technology. The way that humanity students are trying to think helps them solve problems better than most other people and also helps them see problems sooner than folks with different degrees. They are also trained to think critically and analytically and holistically. The truth is that humanity students can do pretty much whatever they want and they can do even more if they go into additional education. But as I said before, most students from most majors don’t move into the highest paying positions without additional education, so it’s not the case that only humanity students need additional education to move into higher levels of business.

In the book we cite a good number of economists who talk about what students are going to need in the modern and future economies. Those folks say that the modern and future economy is going to need agile and flexible thinkers and actors, not people who are trained in one specific discipline or to do one specific job. Indeed, here’s what a few folks you might have heard of say about degrees in liberal arts/humanities.

At the unveiling of Apple’s iPad 2 in 2011, Apple founder Steve Jobs proclaimed, “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” When I give presentations about our book I note that the reason Apple is a lifestyle and Microsoft is something we all have to try to survive every day is because Steve Jobs understood the value of art and humanities to technology. Steve Jobs’ successor, Tim Cook, struck a pro-humanities theme similar to Jobs’ comments, in his 2017 MIT commencement address where he said, “If science is a search in the darkness, then the humanities are a candle that shows us where we have been, and the danger that lies ahead.” And finally, billionaire investor and businessman Mark Cuban predicts that there’s going to be a greater demand for liberal arts majors in the future of increasing automation because “when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data,” one that a “freer thinker” from the liberal arts can deliver. It’s unfortunate that the captains of industry and Titans of technology understand these things but the people that actually hire often do not. But in spite of that fact, humanity students make their way in technology, stem, healthcare, and business and they do quite well. They must, of course, work hard in college and after college in order to succeed, but that is not something faculty and the humanities can control for. When students do the work they need to do and then they go out into the world and continue with a solid work ethic, humanity students do quite well.

This post is based on the Hums Indicators report; I selected some of the examples to highlight but you can look to the full report for their analysis. As for ROI, I note that a fuller discussion of the cost of higher education is for another post. But it is the surging cost–mostly due to declining public investment in both the US and the UK–that makes the investment part of the equation so tense. That’s not per the data necessarily more severe for humanities majors than any other save engineering. But again, that was not the focus of the report, which was on employment and income.

Thanks so much for writing this! This pretty much sums up what I and my co-author wrote in our book in 2020. Unfortunately, the book was released the day the world went into a pandemic lockdown and it didn’t get much attention. But if folks are interested in a longer discussion of the value of the humanities to our world, as well as the links between the humanities and great careers, please check out our book. It was written with the general public in mind and thus even though it is a scholarly book, it is written without all of the academic jargon.

Major Decisions: College, Career, and the Case for the Humanities

One need not oppose STEM to Humanities…the wonders and problems of our world require new ways of organizing knowledge that surpass this bifurcation we have inherited (see “Environmental Humanities” a beautiful example of which can be found here:

Totally agree. But as a person who did the research and wrote a book on the value of humanities, I can tell you the vast majority of pro stem rhetoric is also incredibly anti-humanities. We lose so much when we separate and isolate rather than work together. A field in my discipline is health communication and how wonderful would it have been if scientist during Covid would have read anything my discipline wrote about how to persuade people in terms of health communication and social influence. We literally have academic research on how to persuade people to do things like take vaccines and yet because we are so separate from stem, nobody at the CDC or other places even understands those rhetorical strategies.We are in total agreement on the importance of stem and humanities working together, but it’s typically not the humanities who separate is itself from stem. It’s the rhetoric of stem and the fake stem crisis that does that to the humanities.

There are no jobs for those holding PhDs in a humanities discipline in the UK. There are too many PhD places available because universities want the money they get from tuition fees. I gave many years of my life to my MA and PhD degrees, even did a postdoc, and at the end of it, I could not find an academic job. How is that fulfilling? Now I work in a low-paid professional job and every day is a struggle because of the absurdity of it all. The capitalist economy does not care for humanities.

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