The LEAP Challenge Blog

New Reports Offer Good News for the Arts and Humanities

Good news for recent graduates who majored in the arts or humanities: you are not doomed to a lifetime of poverty and unemployment. This might seem like common sense, but it’s helpful to be armed with data when you go to make the case for the disciplines, especially when talking with policy makers. For such data, look to new reports from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), based at Indiana University, and the Humanities Indicators, a project of American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

I won’t delve too deeply into the specific findings here—the reports are available online, or if you want a quick overview of the findings, Inside Higher Ed has an excellent summary of both reports—but there are a few points worth highlighting. The fine arts are often maligned as the least practical fields of study, but 70 percent of recent fine arts grads say their institutions did a good job helping them learn to speak persuasively and to network and build relationships, and 80 percent of recent grads say their first jobs were closely or somewhat closely related to their field of study—a much higher rate than that reported by mechanical engineering majors (53 percent) and accounting majors (56 percent), according to the National Science Foundation’s 2010 Survey of Recent Graduates. Perhaps most important, 75 percent of recent arts graduates report being satisfied overall with their jobs.

Humanities majors are also doing just fine. While the median annual salary for humanities degree holders is lower than the median salary for all workers whose highest credential is a bachelor’s degree— $51,000 versus $56,000—it’s still 45 percent more than the median salary for high school graduates. (It’s also worth pointing out that just because a salary falls below the median does not necessarily make it “low”: the salaries for half the disciplines will always fall below the median—that’s precisely what “median” means.)  Furthermore, the many humanities majors who go on to earn graduate degrees earn a median salary of $71,000—a 40 percent boost.

This data comes from the most recent update to the Humanities Indicators. The project, which has been collecting data for several years, covers much more than graduates’ salaries: there’s also information on enrollment trends, research funding, K-12 education, the humanities in public life, and much more. The enrollment data, in particular, is worth examining to see that, contrary to what some pundits suggest, enrollments in humanities disciplines are not declining. As David Silbey has pointed out, the proportion of the US population earning degrees in the humanities has actually greatly expanded, and the percentage of humanities as a proportion of all degrees has held steady in spite of the recent growth in students majoring in preprofessional fields, many of which did not require a college degree just a few years ago.

The reports aren’t all positive, of course. The SNAAP report indicates that recent fine arts graduates have higher levels of debt than graduates reported a few years ago. It’s also troubling that female humanities graduates—who make up a disproportionate share of all humanities graduates—earn 21 percent less than male humanities graduates. These are serious issues, and they extend to many other disciplines beyond the arts and humanities, too.

It will be interesting to see what sort of data these reports offer a few years from now, but for now it’s safe to say that these disciplines are not dead, and majoring in them is not a career dead end, either. Employers say, over and over, they’re looking for graduates with “soft skills”—skills like written and oral communication, critical thinking, and interacting with people from diverse backgrounds. I don’t think that’s likely to change any time soon.

Which isn’t to say you can’t learn such skills while majoring in, say, business—a rigorous business program certainly could, and should, help students develop such skills. But studying the arts and humanities, perhaps more than other disciplines, requires students to think about issues beyond their careers or the economy—engaging with these subjects requires students to consider what their values are, and how they fit into their communities, from the local to the global. They prepare graduates to be citizens. AAC&U has long advocated for higher education to prepare graduates for citizenship as well as work, and along with its partners in the Civic Learning and Democratic Action Network offers resources to help institutions move civic learning from the periphery to the center of student learning.

That’s another reason why these latest reports offer good news: if we’re to have any hope of maintaining a functioning democracy in this country, as well as a growing economy, we’ll need to produce more college graduates who are prepared for both work and citizenship. This is what we should aspire to for all students, at all institutions.