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Why Get a Liberal Arts Degree? The Cost

We’ve all heard variations on the familiar refrain: to get a good job, you need to major in the right field, and the liberal arts (the humanities and social sciences) are not the right majors. Instead, you need to major in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) field or get a business degree, since that’s where the money is. Lately, we’ve heard the additional argument that the high cost of education leads to considerable debt, and that without the proper major, you’ll be saddled with this debt and you’ll be unable to ever get a job to pay it back. As advisors for the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, this is a question we need to address, since, if these are valid points, it would be unethical for us to advise students to major in the majority of our departments.

Popular opinion says that if you want to get a college degree that will be worth its time and money, you need to get something in the STEM fields or in get a degree in business. After all, it’s common knowledge that degree holders in the liberal arts make less money. The problem is that most of the people who argue this point don’t look any deeper, since more money is obviously better. Most everyone in the humanities and social sciences will concede that STEM and business majors generally make more money. After all, according to a recent report by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, the median salary for an engineering major is $75,000, for mathematics and computer majors it’s $70,000, and for a business major it’s $60,000. Conversely, looking at the liberal arts, a social science major has a median income of $55,000 and a humanities major has merely $47,000. Since bigger is better, we should then assume that a liberal arts degree is bad. And that’s where popular opinion leaves it.

The reality of the relationship between income and college major is far less horrible than popular opinion would have you believe. Why? Well, let’s look at the some different numbers. First off, the median personal income for an individual in the United States in 2012 was $26,989. That’s right, about $20,000 less than the median income for a humanities major and $28,000 less than for a social science major. Additionally, we see a large minority of liberal arts students getting graduate degrees, which typically boosts their income by between 40-50%. But let’s look at some popular degrees for some more specific data:

Major

Median Income

% Getting Grad Deg.

Earnings Boost

Psychology

$45,000

43%

45%

History

$50,000

46%

60%

English

$48,000

43%

42%

Philosophy

$48,000

53%

36%

Political Science

$59,000

47%

62%

Sociology

$45,000

34%

34%

Communications

$50,000

19%

26%

Studio Art

$40,000

28%

3%

The reality is that even the lowest performing liberal arts majors here at the University of Maine, based on the Georgetown study, still have a median income of $40,000 per year, a full $13,000 above the overall US median income. And looking at some of the highest performing majors, political science at $59,000 and American history at $57,000, they are more than double the overall median income and not far behind the business major. So, based on these numbers, we can see that any college degree, even that with the lowest median income, gives a massive boost to personal income.

The detractors of the liberal arts also like to argue that a degree in the humanities or the social sciences will leave an individual cash-strapped for years to come, having to pay off debt. This can definitely be true, depending on many factors, including the cost of the college/university, the amount of scholarships and grants received, and the amount of loans taken out to pay for schooling. According to a recent survey, 61% of University of Maine graduates finished with average outstanding student debt load of $26,249. The question to ask, then, is whether majoring in a field that interests you so that you can get into an occupation that interests you is worth that potential student debt load.

While popular opinion focuses completely on total salary and says the higher equals better, a recent study by the Center for Health and Well-being at Princeton University explored the relationship between job satisfaction and household income. What they found is that a household income (the combined personal incomes of all members of the household) of $75,000 per year brought the maximum amount of day-to-day happiness or, as they put it in the study, emotional well-being. Below that amount, households may not have enough money to pay for certain necessities, such as quality food, housing, and health care. Conversely, making more than $75,000 has ambiguous benefits in terms of happiness, with much of the extra income going towards buying pleasures, since necessities are already taken care of. Thus, while having a household income in excess of $75,000 may be motivation for some people, especially those who pick a college major based on future salary expectations, those individuals who are not motivated by money, such as many of those students who pursue liberal arts degrees, will likely be completely content with the “meager” earning potential of their humanities or social sciences degree.

What we find, in viewing these studies and surveys, is that while students who get a degree in the humanities or social sciences will most likely not make as much income as their friends in the STEM fields or business, they will likely have enough income to be truly happy. The moral of this story, then, is to go towards what you love. Whether it is a STEM field or business or the liberal arts, you will most likely make the salary necessary to be happy with your life choices.

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