The Value of an Arts and Sciences Degree
Over the last two decades, the value of a college degree has risen to new heights. Compared with people who have only a high-school diploma, today's average college graduates:
• live significantly longer (1),
• report being happier with their lives (2),
• earn significantly more money during their careers (3), and;
• are employed at much higher rates (4).
Majors in the Arts and Sciences include all majors in the humanities, fine and performing arts, social and behavioral sciences, and the natural sciences and mathematics. Unlike more vocationally-oriented majors, such as majors in business, engineering, or the health professions, A&S majors tend to study a greater range of topics outside of their immediate major area. This greater breadth provides an interdisciplinary perspective that complements the more linear education in the student’s major area.
Besides this added breadth, there is another important difference between Arts and Sciences majors and more vocationally-oriented majors. By their nature, Arts and Sciences majors involve the study of those aspects of our world that address complex, open-ended problems and challenges. Whether in physics or philosophy, anthropology or visual arts, there is no textbook with all the right answers. Consequently, students in Arts and Sciences majors must learn to combine their disciplinary knowledge with invention, teamwork, and creativity in order to find new answers and solutions. As a result, earning an Arts and Sciences degree is never simply a matter of rote learning and memorization, but is instead a much richer development of the individual.
We have strong evidence that employers value the skills that Arts and Sciences majors cultivate. It comes from what employers themselves say they want from college graduates.
The Chronicle of Higher Education provides a detailed survey of employer attitudes in its periodic report, “The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions”. In the most recent survey (2012), the Chronicle summarized some key findings as follows:
"I think if you have a good background in what it is to be human, an understanding of life, culture and society, it gives you a good perspective on starting a business, instead of an education purely in business. You can always pick up how to read a balance sheet and how to figure out profit and loss, but it's harder to pick up the other stuff on the fly.”
-Stewart Butterfield, Flickr co-founder and entrepreneur and Humanities major (5).
- Only 19% of employers look for specific majors and do not consider candidates without them, while the majority – 78% will consider any major.
- Colleges should go beyond a vision of majors articulating to specific careers. Majors matter to some extent, but in many cases, college major is not the determinant of career entry. A college should approach career development as career exploration for a great many of its students guiding and supporting students with the right mix of solid liberal arts skills and content knowledge.
- Among skills needed by employers, job candidates are lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability, managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving (6).
This last point is especially noteworthy because, as we document below, Arts and Sciences majors do especially well in just the skill areas demanded by employers.
The most direct evidence that A&S majors acquire interpretive, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills comes from comparing their performance to other college graduates on standardized tests.
One broad test of college students’ preparedness is the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). A famous 2011 study involving thousands of college students taking the CLA was conducted by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (authors of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses), and a follow-up CLA study was done by Arum, Roksa, and Esther Cho. The results of these studies were commonly reported as negative for higher education. However, what was less frequently reported was that majors in the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, and math (all Arts and Sciences majors), actually performed well above average. As Arum, Roksa, and Cho put it:
"Students majoring in traditional liberal-arts fields, including social science, humanities, natural science, and mathematics, demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study”. (7)
You can read a summary of this report, and see comparisons of Arts and Sciences majors with those in other disciplines, here.
Furthermore, performance on the CLA has more recently been found to track closely with the avoidance of unemployment, underemployment, and job loss: “Those who leave college with greater demonstrated performance on an assessment of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing fare better than those who fail to do so." (8)
Other evidence that Arts and Sciences majors are, on average, among the best-prepared graduates comes from post-graduate admissions tests, such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), and the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT).
ETS, the company the produces the GRE, regularly publishes results by intended area of study. Arts and Sciences majors, which encompass the Physical Science, Social Science (exclusive of Economics, which is taught in the Mitchell College of Business at USA), and Humanities majors, are consistently among the top scoring majors in each of the three areas tested, as the following table indicates (9):
The performance of Arts and Sciences majors on other post-graduate admissions tests is, on average, also impressive.
For instance, the Graduate Management Admissions Test is commonly used for admission into graduate programs in business, such as M.B.A. programs. A survey of the mean GMAT scores by major over a five-year period (2008-12) found that 13 of the top 20 scoring majors were Arts and Sciences majors (10). By contrast, with the exception of economics majors, Business undergraduate majors were on average among the worst scoring majors on the GRE.
Finally, Arts and Sciences majors are typically among the highest scorers on the Law School Admissions Test, or LSAT. For instance, in this survey of average LSAT scores by major, Arts and Sciences majors comprised seven of the ten highest-scoring majors, excluding economics majors (11).
We have seen that on average, Arts and Sciences degree holders do very well on tests, and that they have skills that employers demand. Yet how do they fare in the labor market? It is commonly believed that in today's world, vocational majors are more likely to find employment, and to earn higher wages. Yet when we look at actual data comparing Arts and Sciences graduates to more vocationally-oriented college graduates, we find that this belief is unfounded.
Longitudinal studies which have followed college graduates over time have shown that Arts and Sciences graduates typically do very well, especially as their career develops. This latter point is important, because a college degree is a life-time investment. While it is true that some vocational major graduates, such as some engineering graduates, have very high salaries in the first years after graduation, Arts and Sciences majors tend to enjoy more rapid rates of salary growth and professional advancement over time. So over the course of their careers, Arts and Sciences majors tend to match and eventually surpass the occupational status of other majors. Here is what one longitudinal study concluded:
“Occupationally specific degrees are beneficial at the point of entry into the labor market but have the lowest growth in occupational status over time. Students earning credentials focusing on general skills, in contrast, begin in jobs with low occupational status but subsequently report the greatest growth.” (12)
Another longitudinal study found a similar pattern in rates of employment and in salary with humanities and social science majors in particular enjoying higher rates of both employment and salary than vocational majors by mid-career:
Employment across educational fields is almost identical for individuals aged 35-44, and beyond age 45, humanities graduates actually have higher rates of employment than those in other fields.
After age 45, humanities and social science majors’ salaries overtake those of counterparts in other fields. (13)
Finally, The Wall Street Journal publishes salary and salary growth data for various majors (this data is provided by PayScale Inc). This salary information covers not only median starting salaries but also median salary after ten years, and it further confirms the salary findings above . You can view the salary data here and sort it by median salary, "mid-career" (10 years post-graduation) median salary, or rate of change from starting to mid-career median salary.
When sorted by rate of change from starting to mid-career salary, we see that Arts and Sciences majors occupy most of the top 20 majors in rate of median salary growth, and both of the top positions. By contrast, many vocational majors, such as majors in the health services, education, and information technology see very low rates of median salary growth.
Some Highly Successful Arts and Sciences Degree Holders
- Mitt Romney, Presidential Candidate (English)
- Peter Thiel, PayPal Founder and CEO (Philosophy)
- Carly Fiorina, Former HP CEO (History and Philosophy)
- Ken Chenault, American Express CEO (History)
- Carl Icahn, Investor (Philosophy)
- Michael Eisner, Former Disney CEO (English and Theatre)
- Hank Paulson, Former Treasury Secretary (English)
- Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO (Government)
- Sheila Bair, FDIC Chair (Philosophy)
- Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice (English)
- George Soros, Investor (Philosophy)
- Ted Turner, CNN Founder (Classics)
- Anne Mulcahy, Former Xerox CEO (English)
- Richard Anderson, Delta CEO (Political Science)
- Brian Moynihan, Bank of America CEO (History)
- Larry Fink, BlackRock CEO (Political Science)
- Sam Palmisano, former IBM CEO (History)
- Andrea Jung, Former Avon CEO (English)
- A. G. Lafley, Fomer Proctor and Gamble CEO (French)
- Dan Hesse, Sprint Nextel CEO (Government)
- Mario Cuomo, Former New York Governor (English)
- Robert Gates, Former Secretary of Defense (History)
- Jerry Brown, Governor of California (Classics)
- Roger Iger, Disney CEO (Communication)
- Christopher Connor, Sherwin Williams CEO (Sociology)
Source: "30 People With 'Soft' College Majors Who Became Extremely Successful". Business Insider, Dec. 18, 2012.
1. "Differences In Life Expectancy Due To Race And Educational Differences Are Widening, And Many May Not Catch Up." Health Affairs, August 2012 31:81803-1813; "Higher education and income levels keys to better health, according to annual report on nation's health". Center for Disease Control, http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2012/p0516_higher_education.html
5. "The Unexpected Way Philosophy Majors Are Changing The World Of Business." The Huffington Post, 03/05/2014.
7. "Improving Undergraduate Learning: Findings and Policy Recommendations from the SSRC-CLA Longitudinal Project". Arum, Richard, Roksa, Josipa and Cho, Esther. Social Sciences Research Council, 2011, p. 11.
10. "Best GMAT Performance: Physics, Math and Engineering Undergraduates, Bottom Half: Hotel, Marketing & Education" Winning MBA Essay Guide: http://www.f1gmat.com/mean-gmat-score-undergraduate-degree
13. Drewes, T. "Value added: humanities and social sciences degrees. Evidence supports long-term employment success". Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations Forum (OCUFA Forum), Spring 2002, pp. 10-12.