Measuring Humanities Degrees Misses Much of Their Value

Plenty of people know how much they paid for their college degree. Fewer can tell you what it’s actually worth.

That disparity is something new research from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project is hoping to fix.

The project is focusing on wage data from the American Community Survey, but some say using earnings as a sole measure of success misses the value of a degree and how it serves society.

“We’re trying to figure out what the best measure for this is,” said Robert B. Townsend, director of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ office in Washington and a researcher on the project. “A lot of this is, ‘How do you measure the value of a good teacher to society?’ It’s a real challenge.”

The study found that median earnings of humanities majors without advanced degrees were $51,000. For humanities majors who went on to earn any advanced degree, the median earnings grew to $71,000. But some question whether the fixation on the economic value of a degree misses other benefits from studying the humanities.

“I don’t see why we are fixated on the single category of income as a measure of success,” James R. Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “If humanities majors tend to become teachers, social workers, clergy, does that mean they are less successful than money managers or engineers?

“Instead of assuming these humanities majors are less successful, we ought to be thanking them for being willing to make financial sacrifices in their careers to provide our communities with essential resources,” he wrote.

Even if the figures don’t take into account non-economic benefits, the findings can be useful in other ways. For example, the project found that a significant gender-based pay gap persists: Median earnings for female humanities majors (without advanced degrees) were 21 percent lower than for their male counterparts. American-history majors, who had the highest median earnings in the humanities, also had the largest gender pay gap: 39 percent.

“We know that men are paid more than women,” said Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association. “But it’s still distressing that female earnings are below males.”

Focusing on economics to the exclusion of social benefits is one problem. A lack of context is another. Case in point: Among humanities majors with advanced degrees, the project found that students in non-American history and ethnic/civilizations studies got the greatest earnings boost from an additional degree.

But what the data don’t say is that those students are more likely to have language experience and may go into business, which may pay more than other jobs do, said Ms. Feal.

And then there are the limitations of the American Community Survey itself. The ACS data can show only what major the student earned as an undergraduate, not the subject of his or her advanced degree. As a result, a student who majored in humanities and got a law degree is in the same pool as a student who majored in humanities and went on to earn a Ph.D. in poetry.

That flaw in the data is the most problematic, said Mark S. Schneider, a vice president of the American Institutes for Research and president of College Measures.

“If I was trying to tell a student, here’s a professional path that will make sure you’re not living in your mother’s basement, I couldn’t. We cannot get anything out of this that gives me that kind of advice,” he said. “We tell humanities undergraduates that they are not going to be well paid. But what do we want them to do with this information?”

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