Is A Humanities Degree Worth It?

Nov 8, 2011

Yesterday I encountered a couple articles that questioned the value of going to college for a non-STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) degree, both on a personal and societal level. Ignorning the societal questions, my girlfriend and I were curious about whether the claim that humanities or social science degrees aren’t valuable from a personal perspective was borne out in the data.

The one article that provided actual jobs data did so for 25-year-olds, which we felt was a particularly poor choice. If you graduate with a theatre or dance degree, for instance, at 25 there’s a very real chance you’re working a retail or food service job trying to make it in your chosen field, and that’s precisely what you want to be doing. Wage data from that time in a person’s life doesn’t accurately reflect the value of their education, because they’re likely actively ignoring higher-paying jobs because they lack the flexibility necessary to go to auditions and such. Similarly, those who chose to go to graduate school will skew the statistics by not really being in the workforce.

So, we decided to investigate the effect of educational field on income for people in their 40s, because we thought that would be a lot more representative of the long-term value of a college education. All the data comes from the American Community Survey, the Census’ annual survey of data about Americans. A lot of people don’t realize the actual original data points are available (under the name Public Use Microdata Sample), so you don’t have to use the Census’ pre-designed tables, you can develop whatever you want. A little Python scripting later and we had our data.

Discipline Level of education Population Average income
NoneBelow high school5434718$18090
High school diploma25516044$33617
Art and Music Education Bachelor's27864$37539
Professional or Doctorate3711$70742
Visual and Performing Arts Bachelor's8635$38013
Professional or Doctorate1033$74062
Humanities Bachelor's8780$43333
Professional or Doctorate2280$99010
Psychology Bachelor's257599$46728
Professional or Doctorate73793$102719
French, German, Latin, and Other Common Foreign Language Studies Bachelor's37437$47966
Professional or Doctorate11750$99453
Social Science or History Teacher Education Bachelor's13468$50386
Professional or Doctorate2006$102029
English Language and Literature Bachelor's200549$52416
Professional or Doctorate58149$111871
Drama and Theater Arts Bachelor's28539$56420
Professional or Doctorate3996$83334
Journalism Bachelor's91561$60368
Professional or Doctorate9400$86307
Communications Bachelor's247397$62189
Professional or Doctorate14476$111432
History Bachelor's115891$62315
Professional or Doctorate54204$137564
Forestry Bachelor's10254$62604
Professional or Doctorate1046$133358
Physics Bachelor's21442$72082
Professional or Doctorate28437$122621
Accounting Bachelor's466360$74335
Professional or Doctorate32492$125672
Mathematics Bachelor's77258$75037
Professional or Doctorate19521$121534
Molecular Biology Bachelor's2497$79029
Professional or Doctorate4384$175559
Computer Science Bachelor's235530$84217
Professional or Doctorate11220$120176
Chemical Engineering Bachelor's38051$89511
Professional or Doctorate12439$145061

The first rows show the data for people without at least a bachelor’s degree, broken out into those that have a high school diploma (or equivalent) and those that don’t. After that are rows by discipline of bachelor’s degree, sorted in ascending order of income for people who didn’t go on to an advanced degree. We picked a sampling of fields we thought would be representative, but there are more than 150 fields in the data set (see field FOD1P), so let me know if you’re interested in something in particular.

We were surprised to find that, in a few cases, there is only a small benefit to getting a bachelor’s. On average, the holder of a 4-year degree in Art and Music Education only earns $3900 more than someone without a 4-year degree, which is something, but not a lot compared to the many tens of thousands of dollars that the degree cost to obtain.

However, there are relatively few fields that are like that. Even stereotypically underutilized degrees like History, English, or Communications increase earnings by more than 50% by the time you’re in your 40s, though as expected, a STEM degree tends to be more valuable than a non-STEM degree.