Humanities majors are worth more than you’d think

By Matt Hutchison, Columnist

Everyone has heard the spiel they ought to pursue a STEM degree if they have the aptitude. Not only are these subjects crucial for developing the economy of the future, but they are the most sensible academic decision, as their earning potential is high and makes up for the financial investment in a college education. Degrees related to business are considered the next most sensible option.

The humanities are often criticized as not having the benefits, or importance, of STEM or business fields. When measured from the perspective of financial payoff, this is certainly true. Engineering fields in particular dominate the highest average mid-career salaries.

But many humanities degrees are not too far behind; they certainly are not leading to stereotypical starving-artist lifestyles.

It is true STEM fields are very lucrative. Chemical, computer and electrical engineers have the highest mid-career salaries for undergraduate degree holders at $107,000, $105,000 and $103,000 respectively. Other STEM degrees such as math, chemistry and biology earn $92,400, $79,900 and $64,800, respectively. Business degrees like finance, accounting and management are not too far behind at $88,300, $77,100 and $72,100, respectively.

But humanities degrees hold their own. Philosophy is the highest-earning humanities degree at $81,200 by mid-career, followed by history at $71,000 and art history at $64,900. Even more surprising is the fact film — a humanities, social-sciences and business hybrid — has an average mid-career salary of $68,500. At the 90th percentile range, philosophy is especially lucrative, equaling electrical engineering at $168,000 and exceeding computer engineering at $162,000, accounting at $152,000 and management at $147,000.

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But the benefits of humanities majors exceed their monetary benefits.

Beyond the financial payoff, a humanities degree trains you how to think — and not just in a contemporary context but from the various perspectives that have existed throughout time and across cultures.

Some argue the humanities are thriving despite decreasing college enrollments. They believe humanistic understanding is inherent to the human experience and culture offers many ways to engage the humanities; thus, they conclude a formal education in the subjects is unnecessary, or radically critical perspectives among faculty have turned students away.

While it is true anyone can engage a work of art, a historical period or a philosophical argument with wide-eyed wonder and appreciation, this is not the point of a degree in the humanities. It is not an indulgent hobby turned into an academic career. To say so is like arguing a degree in engineering is superfluous because society offers us so many opportunities to engage and observe the marvels of engineering or, more crudely, physical laws are observed everywhere, making their study moot.

A formal education in the humanities invites students to partake in an informed conversation that transcends their moment in time. It develops multiple forms of critical thinking and challenges them to envision, contextualize and question the human experience.

Exposure to and the exercise of complex thoughts during your leisure time does not train the way you think. Most art, philosophy, and history are engaged in controversial conversations referencing the past, present and possible futures. An observer uneducated in the minutia of these debates is likely to jump to conclusions, make redundant assessments or miss critical references.

The humanities trains students to not only appreciate their experience but to truly understand its significance. Engaging the humanities as a hobby provides valuable exposure but little insight; a humanities degree provides the skills to develop this deeper understanding of the world while avoiding the misconceptions likely to befall those outside the field.

Matt is a junior in Media. 

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