With commencement season upon us, concerns about job prospects for university graduates are understandably on the minds of students and parents alike. Much of the discussion centers on the relative market value of different degrees, with the assumption being that professional degrees and those in the sciences and technology are more likely to net jobs that those in the liberal arts.
The stereotype is repeated often enough to have become virtually unquestionable. But even if we grant an advantage to STEM majors upon graduation, what are the longer-term outcomes? To my knowledge, only one serious, longitudinal survey exists to track the value of college majors over time. That would be Canadian economist Torben Drewes’ 2002 study, “Value Added: Humanities and Social Sciences Degrees – Evidence Supports Long-Term Employment Success.”
While this study does support the notion that humanities and social science graduates experience greater difficulty in the initial transition from school to work, the picture changes dramatically several years beyond graduation. Employment across educational fields is almost identical for individuals in the 35 to 44 age category. And beyond the age of 45, humanities and social science graduates actually experience greater employment than graduates from other fields.
A similar story holds true for wages, where rates for humanities and social science degrees catch up and then overtake those of their counterparts in the over-45 age group. With all the talk today about return on investment, part of the discussion should address the long-term value of investment in education, rather than its more immediate benefits.
Obviously, more such studies using updated evidence are needed, but we also need to interpret the meaning of such data, where short-term advantages appear to be at odds with long-term success. It isn’t surprising that curriculum focused on preparing for a single career will work in the short run. But in a fast-changing global work environment where unimagined new career possibilities are invented while supposedly secure jobs become obsolete and disappear, the real advantage will go to students whose higher education has helped them develop portable skills that can be applied to different career settings – skills that enable them to succeed by being more flexible, inventive, creative, entrepreneurial and able to think outside of received categories and maintain a critical, forward-looking orientation.
Drewes’ study statistically confirms the value of the kind of broad preparation many business leaders have long been urging. This trend is not going away, as recent studies by the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Association of American Colleges and Universities make clear. My most memorable conversation in this area was with a corporate leader who bemoaned the lack of what he termed “prehistoric skills” among recent college graduates. What did he mean by this odd expression? His response was swift and sure: basic writing and communication, basic knowledge of design (including drawing and sculpture), a deep appreciation and understanding of other cultures and times, and above all, the ability to question the unquestioned assumptions, to think about old problems in radically new ways and from very different perspectives.
These “prehistoric skills” are the core competencies of the humanities, precisely those skills learned from textual and visual interpretation, philosophical and logical analysis, and the study of history and culture. These are precisely the problem-solving, communications and thinking skills that drive long-term success. More and better studies are needed, but for now it does seem a humanities degree is in fact a better long-term career bet.
Georges van den Abbeele is UC Irvine Dean of Humanities. He came to UCI in 2012 from Northeastern University, where he was founding dean of the College of Social Sciences & Humanities and a professor of English and languages, literatures & cultures. During his tenure, he led initiatives in computational social sciences, international studies and sustainable urban systems.
Article first appeared in the May 31, 2013 issue of the Orange County Register.