The Distracting Debate Over the Value of a Liberal Arts Degree

Woe is the English major, forever doomed to live in a hovel, unable to get out from under her student debt. That’s the mantra of people questioning if families should be spending so much—and borrowing so much—to study in seemingly unmarketable fields. Now liberal arts colleges are fighting back, issuing a new report that tries to quantify the benefit of their degrees. They looked at census and economic data to find—shocker—that liberal arts degrees pay off over the long haul.

The report says that professional and preprofessional degrees make up more than half of all degrees, while liberal arts majors—humanities, math, and social, physical, and natural sciences—make up about 36 percent of all graduates. In the first few years after graduating, the analysis found, professional and preprofessional majors earn about 19 percent more a year than humanities and social science majors: $31,183 vs. $26,271. But by the peak earning ages, defined as 56 to 60, the humanities and social science grads come out on top, making 3 percent more ($66,185 vs. $64,149). That jump is even higher for graduates in math and the physical and natural sciences ($86,550 vs. $64,149).

What a prospective student should do with all this info is another question. Should applicants look at earnings after a few years, which recently included down economic times? Or should they look at the earnings of people in their 50s, who went to school three decades ago? The sames questions will fall to the Education Department, which has said it wants to use graduate earnings in its new effort to rate colleges. Those ratings may eventually be tied to federal financial aid, so the question is more than academic.

All of which is to say that the statistical tit-for-tat may be beside the point. A 3 percent increase in potential earnings down the line isn’t life altering, and that’s even assuming that future earnings is the best way to judge the value of higher education. There are bigger questions to tackle: How can more people go to college or get other advanced training? How can fewer students drop out, so they’re not stuck with debt but no degree? And how can we root out low-quality colleges that are good at enrolling students but not at providing a decent education? Broad averages won’t help these questions. In fact, they can be a distraction.

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