Will a Humanities degree make you poor?

"I'm an English major. Would you like fries with that?" That was the joke back when I was an English major, and I imagine it's still the joke among English majors today, that four to six years of intense study is only going to put you in a minimum wage job. There's a pretty strong idea in our culture that people earning degrees in the Humanities are going to have difficulty finding good jobs. What exactly do I mean by Humanities? Each school defines its majors and departments a little differently, but as a rule of thumb think of degrees that require almost no math or science but lots of reading, and aren't geared toward a specific career. English, History, Philosophy, Religion, Languages. Things like that. 

But does this stereotype hold up? The American Academy of Arts and Sciences just released "The State of the Humanities 2018," a report that looks at data from Gallup-Purdue Index surveys and federal government data to give a better sense of what life is like for those with degrees in the Humanities. Beyond this report, their Humanities Indicators website has more than 500 graphs and charts that interpret the data in all kinds of ways. 

[The American Academy breaks down "Humanities" into Area, Civilization, and Ethnic Studies; Art History and Criticism; Communication; English Language & Literature; History; Less Commonly Studied Languages other than English; Linguistics & Comparative Language & Literature; Philosophy & Religious Studies; and Studies in French, German, Latin, and other Common Languages other than English.]

Let's begin with the bad news for Humanities majors.

The median income for workers with a Bachelor's degree in the Humanities is currently $52,000/year, which is well below $82,000/year for degrees in Engineering and even below the median for all college graduates combined--$60,000/year.  Only Arts degrees and Education degrees have lower median incomes.

Someone with a Bachelor's in the Humanities who then goes on to get an advanced degree can expect a median of $72,000/year. That's nice, but still a lot less than the Engineering advanced degree, with a median over $100,000. It's still less than the median for all fields combined with an advanced degree.

The gender gap in Humanities is higher than it is in Engineering, although Engineering's gap is still higher than that for Arts and Education. 

When respondents were asked to check "I have enough money to do everything I want to do" or "In the last seven days I have worried about money," among the Humanities degrees slightly more people said they'd been worried than those who said they had enough. The disparity is worse for Social Science and Art degree holders, but all the other fields had more "everything I need" answers than "worried" answers.

Humanities comes in second highest for unemployment, while Education and Health & Medical Sciences have the lowest unemployment rates.

So getting a degree in the Humanities means lower median pay, higher gender gap, higher odds you'll worry about money, and higher odds for unemployment. Is there any good news? Actually, yes!

When you look at debt levels, there's almost no difference between Humanities majors and other fields. 

When it comes to job satisfaction, Engineering and Business score considerably higher for satisfaction related to "salary" and "benefits," which makes sense for jobs that have higher salary and benefits.  However, there's very little difference between Humanities, Engineering, and Business when it comes to "opportunity for advancement," "job security," and "job location." Humanities majors know they make less, but they're otherwise just as happy with their jobs.

When people are asked if they are "very or somewhat satisfied" with their job, all fields get yes answers in the 80%-90% range. All that extra money for engineers and business people doesn't earn them comparable extra job satisfaction. (Or, if you need a more anti-STEM way of looking at it, engineers and business people get paid more, but that's because their fields are so miserable that they have to get paid more to reach the same level of happiness.) 

When asked if they are deeply interested in the work they do and if they have opportunities to do what they do best at work, Humanities majors said yes at about the same rate as Engineering and Social Sciences majors. Education majors said yes the most, even though their pay is at the bottom.

When asked if they are at least 70% of the way to their "best possible life," Education majors answered yes the most often. Humanities, Natural Science, and Business all look about the same. What's more, when you ask if people will be at least 70% of the way to their best possible life in five years, virtually everybody in every field says yes.

Humanities scores the same as all other fields when it comes to "managing or supervising" being a primary part of your job. So you can get a Humanities degree and still be a boss. Literally.

So when it comes to earning money, Humanities majors really do have less of an advantage over Engineering and Business. But when it comes to being happy with what you have, the differences all but disappear. 

Let's also put all this in perspective.

In the big picture, more education means more money, no matter what the education is. The median income for people with graduate degrees is higher than the median income for people with bachelor's degrees, which is higher than the median income of people with some college experience but no degree, which is higher than the median income for people with only a high school education. We can all point to an educated person who is unemployed or to the college dropout who also happens to be the richest person in the world. But on average, there's a very clear line between level of education and income.

Only about a third of Americans have a college degree, so any degree, in any field, from any college, already puts you into the "elite." 

If what you want is to be mega-rich, then the degree doesn't particularly matter. The top billionaires in American tend to be entrepreneurs, work in finance, and/or inherit their wealth. There is no degree for "billionaire hedge fund manager" or "member of the Walton family."

If you're worried about going completely broke, medical emergencies, unexpected disasters, and divorce are among the top causes of personal bankruptcy. "Should have got a B.S. instead of B.A." is not on the list.

So if you want to major in the Humanities--or Art or Education or Social Sciences--there's not a strong reason not to do that. You have less likelihood of earning big bucks than your friends who major in Business or Engineering, but you have about the same likelihood of being satisfied with your job and your life. When it comes to happiness, I tend to go with (fictional) Dicky Fox: "I love my wife. I love my life. And I wish you my kind of success."


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