The Underestimated Value of Liberal Arts Degrees

The subject matters of arts and humanities, like philosophy and English, are often viewed as being too far removed from daily life to be useful outside of the academic world. Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape, claims that a student not in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) will likely “end up working a shoe store.” Hunter Baker, Dean of Instruction at Union University, however, argues that abilities to think critically and contextualize new information are necessary to long-term business success; according to Baker, arts and humanities cultivate such skills.

Melissa Korn at The Wall Street Journal lends some credence to Baker’s claims: liberal arts majors with post-graduate degrees make $2,000 more than their professional and pre-professional equivalents at the peak of their careers. The Huffington Post provides a list of successful arts and humanities students, all of whom work outside of academia. In addition, data from the Educational Testing Service show that liberal arts students score significantly higher than any other field in both the verbal and analytical writing sections of the GRE, and philosophy students outperform accounting students in the quantitative section.

Despite the academic and business success of liberal arts students, they earn on average far less than engineering students at any equivalent level of education and experience. They also earn less than physical science students at the peak of their respective careers. However, the value of STEM degrees might be overestimated. Robert Charette of IEEE Spectrum claims that the market does not need STEM-specific skills, as there are 11.4 million STEM degree holders working in non-STEM fields and only 277,000 vacancies in STEM-specific jobs. Rather, the critical thinking and problem solving skills taken from those fields provide value and can be acquired just as well—if not better—through a liberal arts education.

Liberal arts degrees such as English, philosophy, or history are not useless or esoteric. Although the knowledge gained through their study might not be directly applicable to any field or job, the frameworks for learning new skills and information obtained from them are useful in any context. Contrary to popular wisdom, degrees in arts and humanities can be used as practical tools for success outside of academia.


Bryan Caplan

The law says that a company cannot give an employment test unless it has been shown to be non-discriminatory in effect, that it doesn’t screen out people of color at a different rate than people of pallor.

So, employers don’t create their own tests or use standardized tests. Companies rely heavily on college degrees to give them some little information about the quality of candidates. Interviewers talk randomly about whatever they want, using personal judgment to decide if the candidate is “a good match”. This is supposed to be less discriminatory!

Schools are conveniently exempt from testing restrictions because they are supposedly altruistic and not connected to the filthy pursuit of money. So, they administer tests to determine who gets in and what grades they receive. I think that most of the excellence claimed by the top schools is actually selected up front by taking the students who test best out of high school. Schools offer no magic “excellence” which can accept a poorly testing student and produce a great testing one.

Camilla Johnson

How would your career have been different if you had failed all the classes you’ve totally forgotten?

The Human Capital model proposes that schools teach useful stuff. Never learning course material (failing) should have exactly the same career consequences as forgetting the course material. Either way, you lack the skills, and the labor market should treat you accordingly.

The Signaling model proposes that schools discover character by making students perform difficult tasks, even if useless. Here, the consequences of failing and forgetting are different. When you fail to learn useless material, you send a bad signal. When you demonstrate mastery of useless material, you send a good signal. The material doesn’t matter. Employers naturally snub people who fail, yet smile upon those who merely forget.

Andrew M.

From the above post, we learn that “Liberal arts students earn on average far less than engineering students at any equivalent
level of education and experience, and less than physical science students at the peak of their respective careers.”

So, either the liberal arts are worse than STEM at teachnig skills and analytical tools which are valuable in the working world, or liberal arts is selecting a less productive cohort. Productive as measured by earning potential.

It is a bit desperate of schools to push the idea that liberal arts allows one to earn more. Liberal arts was always advertised in the past as a way to understand the wider world and gain greater personal satisfaction. Maybe its students didn’t understand this. These days, students want more financial income and freedom.

If a person can’t do or doesn’t like STEM, then liberal arts is the next best signalling mechanism.