Times have been tough for higher education, and the challenges have been numerous: the wake of the Great Recession, dwindling state funding, declining enrollments and growing public skepticism about the value of a college degree, particularly a degree outside the realm of science, technology, engineering or math.
Fort Lewis College is weathering all these storms, and, happily, appears to have turned the corner on its particular enrollment issues. Some colleges across the nation have fared worse, facing sharp budget cuts and even closures.
There are many reasons for these trends, but one is a common view – among students, parents and many pundits – that liberal-arts majors face diminished lifelong earning potential and career success.
Since the great recession, the number of college students nationwide majoring in history and English, two staples of the humanities, has been cut nearly in half. At the same time, students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – have risen sharply.
But actual data refute the myth that drives the trend:
For instance, within six months of graduation from my institution – the University of Colorado Boulder – 91 percent of graduates are either working full time or in graduate school, our research indicates. This is true across the wide range of majors, from physics to philosophy to anthropology.
Nationwide, people with college degrees – regardless of whether those degrees were in the arts and humanities, social sciences or natural sciences – have consistently experienced significantly lower rates of unemployment than the workforce as a whole. This was true even in the worst days of the recession.
Yes, students who major in scientific, technological or engineering fields tend to earn more early in their careers, but the effect is temporary.
By the time they reach peak-earning years (in their 50s and 60s), former students who majored in the social sciences or arts and humanities earned more, on average, than their peers who majored in professional or pre-professional fields, research from the Association of American Colleges and Universities concluded in 2014.
Those results mirror an exhaustive study of alumni who graduated from the CU Boulder College of Arts and Sciences in the last three decades. The research, conducted by Emsi Alumni Insight, surveyed more than 25,000 alumni who graduated with bachelor’s degrees between 1989 and 2018 and calculated their average salary in 2018 at about $80,000 annually, even in the arts and humanities and social sciences.
By comparison, median household income in Colorado was $62,520 in 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.
These results, which I am sure reflect the earnings of Fort Lewis alumni, should surprise no one. Employers pay for skills they value, and employees who do what they love (not what they thought or were told was most lucrative) are especially valuable.
For me, science was the right choice. Chemistry captured my imagination when I was an undergraduate, and I applied that scientific foundation as I earned advanced degrees in earth sciences. I’ve worked for decades studying how our planet functions, and as humans are a major cause of change today, that work required me to understand better how humans operate, from economics to ethics.
I’m a scientist who knows that a broad liberal arts education is widely applicable, greatly needed and significantly helpful to job-seekers and the companies that hire them.
A liberal arts education – one that exposes students to the breadth of human knowledge – conveys skills in critical thinking, communication, leadership and adaptability. As the pace of social and technological change inexorably quickens, these skills are indispensable.
The leaders of many major corporations exemplify this. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, holds a bachelor’s in communications. Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, earned bachelor’s degrees in history and literature. And Steve Ells, co-CEO of Chipotle, earned a degree in art history from CU Boulder.
They followed their intellectual passion and curiosity in college and applied these skills in the worlds of business and technology.
Clearly America needs scientists, engineers and mathematicians, but America also needs historians, political scientists and Spanish majors – liberal arts graduates who are writers, critical thinkers and highly adaptable leaders.
While some still falsely question the value of a liberal arts degree, some national commentators have been extolling a liberal arts education, and enrollment declines in many colleges have stopped or even reversed. This is welcome news, but we should not be complacent.
We have common cause with Fort Lewis – and all state colleges and universities. Together, we serve Colorado. Together, we should continue to champion a college education and a liberal-arts education. Together, we will prepare students to meet the challenges of an ever-evolving workplace and rapidly changing world.
James W.C. White is interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at CU Boulder, professor of geological sciences and former director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.