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