Guest Column

There’s nothing useless about liberal arts degrees

November 8, 2019
| By Lou Glazer |
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We are constantly besieged with messaging that a liberal arts degree is useless. Maybe even worse than useless: a path to being a pauper or something close. Stuck in low-paying work that leaves you unable to pay off the loans and earn enough to buy a house and raise a family. Think again!

In a New York Times column, entitled “In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure,” David Deming, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, presents the data that destroys the above nonsense. Turns out getting a liberal arts degree is one of the most reliable paths to a good-paying 40-year career.

Deming writes:

"The advantage for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors fades steadily after their first jobs, and by age 40 the earnings of people who majored in fields like social science or history have caught up.

“This happens for two reasons. First, many of the latest technical skills that are in high demand today become obsolete when technology progresses. Older workers must learn these new skills on the fly, while younger workers may have learned them in school. Skill obsolescence and increased competition from younger graduates work together to lower the earnings advantage for STEM degree-holders as they age.

“Second, although liberal arts majors start slow, they gradually catch up to their peers in STEM fields. This is by design. A liberal arts education fosters valuable ‘soft skills’ like problem-solving, critical thinking and adaptability. Such skills are hard to quantify, and they don’t create clean pathways to high-paying first jobs. But they have long-run value in a wide variety of careers."

Deming then presents the data:

"Computer science and engineering majors between the ages of 23 and 25 who were working full time earned an average of $61,744 in 2017, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. This was 37 percent higher than the average starting salary of $45,032 earned by people who majored in history or the social sciences (which include economics, political science and sociology). Large differences in starting salary by major held for both men and women.

“Men majoring in computer science or engineering roughly doubled their starting salaries by age 40, to an average of $124,458. Yet earnings growth is even faster in other majors, and some catch up completely. By age 40, the average salary of all male college graduates was $111,870, and social science and history majors earned $131,154 — an average that is lifted, in part, by high-paying jobs in management, business and law.

“The story was similar for women. Those with applied STEM majors earned nearly 50 percent more than social science and history majors at ages 23 to 25, but only 10 percent more by ages 38 to 40."

The bottom line: You are not doing students a favor by steering them into a STEM or business degree they do not want to pursue.

Deming's findings are consistent with those of Google, which found that the skills that defined their most successful employees were: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others’ different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem-solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Where we have gotten off track, across the board in education and training, is in defining what are the foundation skills. To use Heather McGowan’s terrific analogy, the liberal arts skills are the operating system we all need; the job-specific skills are the apps (with a shorter and shorter half-life). So, it is not either/or but both/and for most of us, but where the most important 40-year-career-ready skills are the 6Cs from the book “Becoming Brilliant”: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creativity and confidence.

Deming is exactly right when he concludes his column with:

"To be clear, I am not suggesting that students should avoid majoring in STEM fields. STEM graduates still tend to have high earnings throughout their careers, and most colleges require all students — including STEM majors — to take liberal arts courses. But I do think we should be wary of the impulse to make college curriculums ever more technical and career focused. Rapid technological change makes the case for breadth even stronger. A four-year college degree should prepare students for the next 40 years of working life, and for a future that none of us can imagine."

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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