An acquaintance we’ll call Frank was getting all riled up about the foolishness of someone he knew. The young man had majored in history and was graduating from college $60,000 in debt. Frank went on to ridicule art majors. His son, he said, was practical — he’s going to a trade school instead of college.
I know a teacher who doesn’t want his kids to go into teaching because of the low pay.
Even President Obama has unfavorably compared the earning potential of art historians to skilled workers: “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” His off-the-cuff remarks a couple of years ago elicited a complaint from an art historian at the University of Texas. When the president apologized, Marco Rubio criticized him on Twitter: “We do need more degrees that lead to jobs.”
I wouldn’t want someone I care about to graduate with a debt of $60,000 and a starting salary of $25,000 a year, but don’t we need artists and historians? And to whom are we going to entrust the grave responsibility of teaching future generations?
In case a niece or a grandnephew were to ask my opinion about majoring in an "impractical" subject like history, I thought I’d inform myself with some facts about job prospects.
I did an impractical liberal arts major myself — American studies. It was called American civilization at the University of Illinois back then, and there was only a handful of us majors. I had already started on a career path, however. The managing editor at the newspaper at which I worked during college was the one who advised me not to major in journalism. Journalists can learn skills on the job, he said; major in something that gives you a broad knowledge background.
What he said was echoed by the liberal arts departments of the universities at which I later worked: instead of focusing on narrow professional skills, liberal arts prepares you for many careers by teaching you to think, communicate, and solve complex problems.
Research verifies the claims about employers valuing liberal arts majors. A 2014 report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems said that 93 percent of employers surveyed want their hires to have analytical and communication abilities — the abilities that a liberal education cultivates — more than a particular major.
“Whatever undergraduate major they may choose, students who pursue their major within the context of a broad liberal education substantially increase their likelihood of achieving long-term professional success,” the report says.
The survey also found that while liberal arts majors start out earning less than those with professional degrees, they close the gap over time. At peak earning potential, ages 56 to 60, those with bachelor’s degrees in a humanities or social science field were making $40,000 more than they had right out of college — and $2,000 more than those with professional degrees.
Those surveyed, however, include people who did postgraduate work. Nowadays, with the proliferation of postgraduate certificate programs, postgraduate work can yield a career-focused credential with as few as four courses.
Reassured by what I was finding, I wouldn’t hesitate to endorse a student’s desire for a liberal arts degree.
Those interested in teaching will likely find jobs — many reports have confirmed a teacher shortage. However, the reasons for the shortage — low pay, lack of respect, and disruptive students among them — are discouraging. If you feel passionate about teaching, I’d counsel, go into it with your eyes open — and work to improve the pay and prestige of the profession. The teacher I know who hopes his kids go into higher-paying careers started out in business himself and, unhappy, finally let himself follow his original inclination to teach. He loves what he does and considers it a cause, not just a career — he’s shaping the minds and values of the next generation.
I’d also advise prospective teachers to avoid graduating with debt. It’s hard to pay back loans and support yourself on a small salary. Students can prepare for teacher certification at a much lower cost at in-state public schools than at private colleges. Actually, trying not to graduate with debt is advice I’d give to any college-bound student. I’d recommend identifying a number of schools that match his or her preferences and waiting for financial aid offers before choosing.
Then we come to fine arts and performance majors. Can they hope to make a living as painters or professional musicians? Some do, and the salaries paid by major symphony orchestras are more than livable. But those who make it to that level are are small minority of those who try. Majors in fine arts, music performance, dance, theater, etc., should be prepared to pursue their art on the side while working in jobs that pay the bills.
A former colleague essentially has two careers: editor by day and musician/actor by night. I don’t know how he has the energy, but he’s seemed to be thriving in the more than two decades I’ve known him.
The daughter of a friend majored in dance and was certified in elementary education. She teaches dance in a public school and is a long-standing member of a Chicago dance company.
In sum, what I’d say to a student who’s weighing majors: Earning potential shouldn’t be the main reason for choosing a major. If you have a passion, don’t dismiss it as impractical to pursue. Major in what interests you. But do think realistically about what you’ll do after you graduate.