Oh, the Humanities: Why Not to Pick a College Major Based on a Salary Chart

Here's how I describe my college experience. I met people unlike any I'd ever encountered in my hometown in Oklahoma. I became intrigued by, and committed to addressing, issues facing low-income communities. I was challenged to sort out my beliefs and consider how I want to contribute to the world.

Here's how a new report released by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce would describe my college experience. I attended an expensive university (Wesleyan), made the financially regrettable decision to major in the humanities (Latin American Studies) and then, unsurprisingly, took a low-paying job (at a nonprofit organization).

They would say I'm par for the course among humanities majors. According to the research, we make less than our counterparts with more technical educations, as measured by the median, annual earnings for individuals with various bachelor's degrees. Engineers top the list at $75,000, while the humanities clock in at $47,000 and the arts at $44,000, with psychology and education bringing up the rear at $42,000. (Fields are further delineated into 171 individual majors, though there are so few petroleum engineers, for example, that it hardly seems realistic to consider that profession an option for many undergraduate students, despite the occupation's $120,000 median earnings).

The numbers aren't surprising. Poets aren't known for their obsession with material wealth. Public school teachers don't secretly think they'll get a 1,000% raise if they just stay in the job a few more years. Social workers aren't answering the suicide hotlines with the expectation that someone will call to tell them they've just won the lottery.

Rather, those of us who forgo some potential earnings in exchange for the intangible, but invaluable, opportunity to pursue our interests or stand by our convictions, usually do so knowingly. And often, we're rewarded for it. More and more, elite graduate programs are reserving coveted admission slots for nontraditional backgrounds, including those of us who shied away from calculators and avoided science labs.

Next Stop: Grad School

The Mount Sinai School of Medicine, for example, offers the Humanities and Medicine (HuMed) program, designed for college sophomores who want to complete an undergraduate major in the humanities or social sciences before entering medical school at Mount Sinai. In a press release last year, Mount Sinai researchers reflected on the 25-year-old program, in which accepted applicants are exempted from the traditional pre-med classes. They concluded that "these students are as successful, and in some cases more successful, than their traditionally educated classmates."

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Like medical schools, graduate business programs have taken an interest in nontraditional students too. Among Stanford Business School's MBA class of 2011, 47% majored in either the humanities or the social sciences during college. Earlier this year, the dean of one of Europe's most respected business schools wrote in Bloomberg BusinessWeek about the importance of incorporating the humanities into traditional management curriculums, arguing that such integration will "cement the learning experience and develop open-minded and well-rounded graduates."

Medical schools, business schools and law schools -- which are teeming with humanities majors -- channel students into some of the nation's most lucrative careers. And yet, even as the institutions that train tomorrow's leaders embrace the softer disciplines, some question whether it makes sense to study literature, or ethnomusicology, or anthropology, or so many of the other fascinating, and valuable fields under scrutiny. The Georgetown researchers phrased the question strictly in financial terms, asking "which majors should students consider if they want the best chance of earning family-sustaining wages?"

It's an inquiry that adds the most value in the ethereal world of academic research. In the grind of everyday life, people don't stop educating themselves after college. Instead, many go on to enroll in graduate school. In fact, those same researchers found that 91% of students who major in "school student counseling" obtained an advanced degree, as did 89% of those in "educational administration and supervision," 79% of those in "Health and Medical Preparatory Programs," 70% of those in "counseling psychology," 67% of those in either library science or physics.

Similarly, Williams, an elite, liberal arts college in Massachusetts, reports that 17.1% of respondents surveyed in the class of 2010 intended to go to graduate school directly after college. Chris Winters, director of institutional research at the college, told the school newspaper that "the proportion of students who go immediately to graduate school is much less than students who will go eventually." According to his estimates, 68% of Williams graduates enroll in an advanced degree program within five years of finishing college, while 84% attend within fifteen years.

More Than One Way to Measure 'Value'

Which is not to say that people should have to go to graduate school to get a decent-paying job. We shouldn't. For that matter, we shouldn't have to go to college to get a decent-paying job either. But we have to deal with the facts on the ground.

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Still, encouraging students to consider their college major exclusively through the lens of financial return is myopic.

I'm not saying that students should disregard the financial impact of selecting a major. Of course not. College is expensive, and everyone should take the time to do the math as it relates to their choices. But college isn't just about the monetary return on investment. And to reduce an education to such a blunt calculation is to ignore the multitude of rewards that have both nothing and everything to do with long-term success. Specifically, the opportunity to learn how to interact with people from all over the world, the ability to question what you know, the chance to push your limits, and to explore the unknown with the relative safety net of knowing that the worst-case scenario for failure is probably little more than a bad grade on a paper.

In reflecting on the findings, Anthony Carnevale, one of the report's authors, told The Washington Post, "There's this business about people in college following a dream. But how do you know it's a dream? Students have a right to know what kind of career they're headed for."

He's right. We do. But there's much more to that choice -- and to a person's long-term success -- than a number on a salary chart.

Loren Berlin is a columnist at DailyFinance.com. She can be reached at loren.berlin (at) teamaol.com. You can follow her on Twitter @LorenBerlin, or on Facebook.