"What are you going to do with that degree?"
It's a question many young people have heard, especially those who studied philosophy, literature, history or any of the other liberal arts. During the '90s and 2000s, it might have once been easy to brush it off, but more recent numbers show that it has become increasingly difficult to secure a job with a humanities degree.
According to data from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the average number of English, foreign language, philosophy and history jobs for PhD graduates has taken a steep plunge since the onset of the financial crisis in 2007.
Though the data from the AAA&S specifically looked at jobs for PhD candidates in the academic job market, the dramatic fall in available openings points to a larger trend of a lessened focus on the feasibility of liberal arts pursuits. Bleak employment prospects have resulted in surging demand among safe fields with high earning potential and has come at the expense of liberal arts and the humanities.
Unfavorable market forces seem to have coincided with diminished liberal arts programs across the country. According to the Associated Press, a 2012 study found that "of 212 [liberal arts] institutions identified in 1990, only 130 still meet the criteria of a 'true liberal arts college.' Most that fell off the list remained in business, but had shifted toward a pre-professional curriculum."
Most popular college majors are dominated by hard sciences or areas with higher employment or earning potential. Undergraduate engineering enrollment, for example, spiked during the recession, peaking at 468,100 in 2009, according to the National Science Foundation. As Quartz notes, enrollment in U.S. engineering graduate programs has increased by a staggering 38% since 2005, far outpacing the second fastest growing program: medical school at 11% over the same time.
Accelerating the trend has been the rising costs of college tuition at public institutions — a 40% jump in the first decade of the 2000s — and increasingly higher levels of student loan debt. And while paying your loans and finding an apartment with a literature degree may be a bit tougher these days, there are also negative consequences to dumping the humanities.
"As [education] moves into a simple kind of problem-solving through a set of skills, the breadth of questions become impoverished," Andrew Needham, a New York University history professor, told Mic. Needham is one of the many who bemoaned the trend toward increasingly commodified degrees. While obviously biased, his, and other academics, warnings may be on to something.
In A New Case for the Liberal Arts. Assessing Institutional Goals and Student Development, authors David Winter, David C. McClelland and Abigail J. Stewart found that "a liberal arts college freshman-to-senior improvement on most of the areas of competence is significantly greater than freshman-to-senior progress at either a vocationally oriented college or a community college." Among the metrics measured were critical thinking, leadership capacity and adaptability.
Obsession over narrow skills and commodifying your education ignores the obvious, that the most valuable skill anyone can have is the ability to think. A good idea can change the world, and without liberal arts, that gets a lot harder.
Correction: March 12, 2015
An earlier version of this article failed to clarify that the data from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences refers to graduates of PhD programs, not undergraduate humanities programs, as was implied.