I have often heard the vague assertion that a liberal arts degree will best prepare you for a job. But I’m more interested in concrete results. Will it get you hired? That information is surprisingly hard to find. So I was excited to find referenced sources on the Phi Beta Kappa (liberal arts and sciences honor society) website, on a page called their toolkit. (You might want to start with the first post in this series, What is a liberal arts degree?)
I started out by looking at the references for statements that sounded substantial, only to discover that I didn’t find their sources to be very rigorous. (That’s a nice way to say that they looked too vague to convince me that they meant anything. They were only barely better than worthless.) Frustrated, I decided to quit reading the conclusions on the PBK website and just jump to their referenced sources and finish them in order. Were the statements on the website based on anything that seemed to provide substantial evidence?
Let’s look at the next reference.
You have to pay to see the full report, so I looked at the brochure with selected findings.
Among some of the other data, I found this frustrating assertion as a title to an infographic: “Drivers of US Intellectual Capital: More Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Attain Advanced Degrees.”
Of course a large number of liberal arts and science majors get advanced degrees! Because they can’t get jobs with their undergraduate liberal arts and science degree. In case you’re wondering, given the cost of an undergraduate degree, I don’t find a major that leads you to get a graduate degree to necessarily be a good thing. (But a university trying to make money from graduated students would think so!)
It follows that I don’t really care about the presented data that graduate degrees increase earnings either. To really mean something, the earnings would have to factor in the cost of obtaining that extra education, as well as the years of studying with little or no income. (Although I will admit that I would be alarmed if you didn’t get a salary bump for going to even more school. Data that showed no salary increase would be alarming! So I suppose it does have some usefulness.)
Further in the brochure was the one data set that I thought might be interesting. “Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Close Earnings Gaps with Professional Majors” brochure of selected findings AAC&U and NCHEMS, “Liberal Arts Graduates and Employment: Setting the Record Straight,” Washington, D.C.: 2014 .
On a graph they give the starting salaries for the Humanities and Social Sciences: $26K, Professional and Preprofessional: $31K, Physical Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Mathematics, $26K. To sort that out, the liberal arts and science degrees start off with the same salaries, $26K, compared to the Preprofessional degrees, $31K.
Then they show what they call “peak earning ages 56-61,” which might be more appropriately titled “average salaries during the ages of 56-61,” unless we’re going to really justify their label. Anyway, moving past that, the earnings are Humanities and Social Sciences: $66K, Professional and Preprofessional: $64K, Physical Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Mathematics, $87K.
I have no idea why they didn’t arrange that Professional $64K, Humanities and Social Sciences $66K, Math and Science $87K, because it seems like it would have emphasized their point better to group the liberal arts and sciences on the end. But whatever.
Next up, was to make sure I understood the meaning of professional or preprofessional degree. And I did. The most common preprofessional degress are preMed, preLaw, and prePharmacy. That means that you would have to assume that at least some of those students then went on to become pharmacists, lawyers, and doctors. I think we’ll all agree that there are very few doctors and lawyers making $64K a year when they’re 60. Maybe they are adjusting the yearly salary with Medical and Law school loan repayment? That is only kind of a joke. Another reason could be that a low percentage go on to get their professional degree? While this might seem like I’m trying to add to the data here, it’s more of me trying to decide if I believe this data.
So to make sure we get this straight, we’re comparing earnings at 56-61 among people who graduated with preprofessional degrees and the liberal arts and sciences degrees which include, humanities and social sciences, and science and math degrees.
While the difference between the humanities and social sciences $66K and the Professional $64K might not look as impressive a gain over a pre-professional or professional degree (especially given that the starting gap is twice as large), let’s think about that $87K in the sciences, which does look like an impressive gain.
From my experience, I’m going to guess that the $87K is a result of PhDs, and more specifically PhDs like Physics and possibly chemistry pharmaceutical research. To get their PhD, they would have been in school just as long (or longer) than those with “professional” degrees. And who knows how many of those people thought they could get a job with their undergraduate degree, and then found that their only option was to get a graduate degree, which would put off their accumulation of earnings. I also know firsthand that PhDs in physics also end up getting hired in places like banking and computer programming.
This is interesting, because while I’m trying to look for numbers to prove that liberal arts and science degree can make you employable, right there I’m reminded of a “liberal arts and sciences degree” that does lead to employment. However, I’m talking about Physics PhDs, which I would guess is not a large percentage of liberal arts degrees conferred. And it’s not a BS or BA degree, it’s a graduate degree that would require 4-7 years past college. It just goes to show that I’m probably trying to look for proof of something that’s too broad. But I’ll keep looking at this data never-the-less.
Now notice that they conveniently left off engineering and computer science from this graph. Also not included were business degrees.
So now I’m even less impressed.
What about you? What do you think? Does this data help convince you that a liberal arts degree will lead to higher earnings? (Yes, I realize there is more to a career than the money earned.) In my next post, I’ll look for more data.