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Study Showing Value of Liberal Arts Education Counters Skeptics

While incoming college students are told to follow their passions, the reality is many also look at the earning potential for various majors—not surprising considering the high cost of getting a degree.

A new study supports the value of a liberal arts education over time, countering some of the claims that science, math, engineering, and technology are the most lucrative career paths.

While liberal arts majors may start off with lower salaries, over time that gap closes and prospects for employment are high, according to the report, How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths by Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly. The report, sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

True, the authors acknowledge, humanities and social-science majors have modest incomes right out of college. Yet, by age 56 to 60, liberal arts majors in their peak earning years (many of whom obtained graduate degrees along the way) slightly outpaced their peers in professional and preprofessional majors with earnings.

Helping boost the earnings of liberal arts majors is the fact that about 40 percent hold a graduate degree. That extra education can translate into annual additional earnings of about $20,000. This brings up a note of caution in the results: The researchers write that if those graduate-degree holders are taken out of the analysis, the humanities and social-science majors earned less than professional and preprofessional majors.

So, students who love the liberal arts can find comfort knowing that their earnings may catch up with their STEM peers eventually—but only if they are willing to get a master's or more to supplement their bachelor's degree.

As for job prospects, the report notes the unemployment rate for recent liberal arts graduates is 5.2 percent. Yet, the jobless rate for workers age 41 to 50 with liberal arts degrees is 3.5 percent—just .04 percent higher than the rates for those with a professional or preprofessional degree.

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