Liberal Arts Degrees Can Net Big Salaries -- if You Wait Long Enough

Liberal arts degrees have been under attack lately, as employers turn up their noses at those particular diplomas in favor of ones in computer science, engineering, and business.

Despite the snub, students still flock to the liberal arts, which deliver nearly 17% of all four-year degrees in the U.S. Comparatively, only 8% of all graduates leave college with a bachelor's in either the natural sciences and math, or engineering and computer science -- collectively known as the STEM degrees.

Are liberal arts degrees really so impractical, dooming the majority of recipients to a lifetime of unfulfilling jobs for which no college diploma is even necessary?

Well, not quite. New research shows that, even though liberal arts majors take a beating in the job market for the first few years following graduation, they catch up salary-wise with their science and technology brethren by mid-career -- sometimes leaving the latter group in the dust.

A slow start
A recent study by PayScale shows that, after 10 years on the job, many workers with bachelor's degrees in the liberal arts have median salaries at least as hefty as their counterparts in more science-driven occupations. This research mirrors a report earlier this year from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in which it was found that liberal arts majors on average often make approximately $2,000 more per year than their non-liberal arts peers by the time they reach the 56-60 age range.

That might seem like an awfully long time to wait to reach parity, but the AAC&U had other upbeat news for the social sciences crowd: Unemployment is usually low for liberal arts graduates, and decreases over time, to a teensy 3.5% by the time these workers are in their 40s.

Happily, the PayScale study shows that liberal arts people catch up to math and science graduates by mid-career, defined as at least 10 years on the job. For this report, the median employee had been working for 15 years and was 44 years old. 

For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has the fifth-highest median starting salary, at $70,300, while graduates of liberal arts school Colgate University earn only $54,000. By midcareer, however, Colgate's $126,600 median annual pay compares well with MIT's $128,800.

Similarly, Washington and Lee University's median starting pay for its graduates is only a little over $50,000, while California Institute of Technology graduates boast a satisfying $74,800 median salary. Several years later, though, the liberal arts college's former students have nearly caught up, making $124,300 to Caltech's $126,200. 

Meanwhile, graduates of engineering-oriented Carnegie Mellon University make a median mid-career salary of less than $112,000 annually, despite starting off their working lives with a healthy yearly pay level of $62,300. 

Is it worth the wait?
Under the best-case scenario, it appears that many who graduate with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts will be in their early 30s before they can expect to see their pay catch up to that of STEM graduates who have worked the same length of time. As the AAC&U notes, making up the difference may actually take longer -- possibly well into a worker's middle years.

Even a 10-year timeline is iffy, for a couple of reasons. One is that many students now borrow to attend college, and the standard time frame to repay federal student loans is 10 years, though some plans allow for up to 25 years. You will, however, wind up paying more for those loans if you stretch repayment out for more than the standard decade. While students in a variety of disciplines take out loans, repayment will doubtless be more arduous for those with degrees that net lower-paying jobs than for graduates making a heftier starting salary.  

None of the foregoing means all students should avoid liberal arts degrees, of course. But information on earnings is important, and, for many students, might carry extra weight when choosing a major.

As the PayScale study points out, liberal arts studies help foster soft skills, such as good communication, that employers look for in job applicants. Would injecting more of the humanities into the hard sciences help produce more well-rounded graduates -- and vice versa? It would seem so. Perhaps the answer to the question of which degree is better -- science or humanities -- lies somewhere in the middle.

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