As the class of 2015 collects their diplomas and dives into the job market, all their assumptions about the worth of their degrees will be put to the test.
Engineering majors will emerge confident in the value of their technical skills. English majors, of course, will skew a bit more sheepish after years of hearing from family and friends that their degrees aren't practical in the modern economy. What can somebody expect to earn after years of critiquing early 20th century modernist poets, anyway?
This isn't the impenetrable mystery it's often made out to be. According to a report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, median earnings for English majors between the age of 25 and 59 is $53,000. That's $17,000 more a year than having only a high school degree, and $8,000 less than the average across all college degrees. English majors — the most common among the humanities — don't rank highest of the bunch, but they're not at the bottom either.
Here's how they and other oft-criticized humanities majors stack up compared to each other and against those self-assured engineers:
History is the most lucrative humanity. Among people who graduate with humanities and liberal arts degrees, history majors fare best, with median wages of $54,000 annually. Theology majors rank lowest, at just $43,000 a year. Philosophers take in $51,000 annually, as do area specialists like Latin American studies majors (although it should be noted their degrees are typically multidisciplinary, and thus tend to include social science courses). Take a look at this chart from Georgetown's report to see all all of the humanities:
Grad school is a big boost: About 45% of humanities and liberal arts majors go on to earn a graduate degree — more than the average college graduate — which means significantly higher earnings for those who do.
Among graduate degree holders, history majors again perform the best. Their median wage is $80,000 a year — the only humanity that makes more than the average graduate degree holder. Area studies move up in the pack, coming in second with $77,000 a year. Philosophy majors earn $68,000. People who major in theology and religious vocations again bring up the rear, with $51,000 a year:
Humanities majors are not generally high earners: So how do those daring humanities majors compare in the job market to peers in other fields? They're a long way from the top, but still not at the bottom.
Architecture and engineering majors are the king of the mountain, with $83,000 median earnings. Below them are computers, statistics and mathematics-related majors ($76,000), business majors ($65,000) and health-related majors ($65,000).
Median wages for humanities and liberals arts majors collectively come in at $52,000 a year. Among those below them are majors in the arts ($49,000), psychology and social work ($47,000) and education ($45,000). Take a look at all the groupings of majors below:
Beyond median earnings: The report also provides "what the middle half of college graduates are likely to earn (i.e., the range from the 25th to 75th percentiles)." These findings serve as a reminder that higher performers in any field tend to exceed the worst performers in more conventionally lucrative ones.
For example, humanities and liberal arts majors at the 75th percentile earn more than the median wage earner of every field except architecture and engineering majors. And the median earnings in every major are higher than those for the 25th percentile of business majors:
College majors can be useful predictors of earnings, but they're far from destiny. The specific industry that someone enters combines with their ability and effort, personal connections, the economy's health, graduate-level study and countless other factors that can dramatically reshape how much cash people are bringing home at the end of the day.
Rather than dismiss a line of study as pure fancy, it's better to take a look at actual outcomes, and then make an informed decision based on what matters most to you.