Liberal arts degrees get a bad rap. They’ve been called worthless and inferior, and some have even suggested that it may be wiser to get no college degree at all. Yet do not fear, all you liberal arts graduates, there’s welcome news for you in Mark Schneider’s and Matthew Sigelman’s latest report, Saving the Liberal Arts: Making the Bachelor’s Degree a Better Path to Labor Market Success. The duo from the American Institutes for Research examines whether students graduating with liberal arts degrees are getting a good return on their investment, and how they might maximize those degrees by incorporating other skills.

They use data from Burning Glass Technologies, which, according to their website, is an analytics software company that is “powered by the world’s largest and most sophisticated database of jobs and talent, [delivering] real-time data and breakthrough planning tools that inform careers, define academic programs, and shape workforces.” The BGT database has over 150 million unique job postings dating back to 2007, and over 78 million resumes. Their technology extracts information from roughly 50,000 online job boards, newspapers, and employer websites daily. They claim to capture, at minimum, 80–90 percent of job postings that organizations post online. BGT then codes the data to extract granular information from postings about labor market trends and new and emerging skills needed for various jobs, then supplements those data with information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Specifically for this report, job posting data are pulled for a twelve-month period from December 2016 to November 2017.

Using data from a supplemental source, Schneider and Sigelman first find that the median earnings by age thirty for those in liberal arts and the humanities is $36,683, which is lower than almost a dozen other major fields of study. They also find that, from 2007–16, there’s been a 4 percent decline in the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in liberal arts and the humanities; contrast that to the 55 percent increase in biology and life sciences. Next the AIR researchers identify a set of occupations that represent “entry-level opportunities” for all college graduates (meaning you need a college degree, including associates, and less than five years of experience), and then take out jobs that require advanced and specialized degrees. They are left with 1.4 million unique entry-level postings over the last year for which liberal arts degree holders could qualify. The researchers then group related occupations with similar skills together into ten career clusters (examples below) because they presumably “offer opportunities to build transferable skills, and provide sustainable employment and advancement opportunities.”

Schneider and Sigelman find that, relative to the highest proportion of entry level openings, the top five industries are business administration, data analysis/data management, human resources, IT and networking, and sales. Yet when one looks at the share of entry-level jobs filled by liberal arts graduates, data show that these candidates fill 83 percent of the openings in “media and communication”—jobs like writers, editors and reporters. In the other two industries most likely to be filled by liberal arts graduates, they fill 54 percent of design positions (jobs like graphic and industrial designers) and 50 percent of openings in and marketing and PR. Yet, according to BLS, these are also the two industries that have the least projected amount of employment growth. The AIR analysts find that sectors like business administration, data analysis and management, and programming and software development have higher projected employment growth, but smaller shares of entry level jobs held by liberal arts graduates.

Finally, Schneider and Sigelman identify workers with liberal arts degrees who started in one career cluster, and then calculate the percentage who ended up in another five years later, as well as their likelihood of doing so. They find that many career clusters open to liberal arts grads offer early- and mid-career salaries comparable to those attainable by all bachelor’s graduates and even STEM grads. For instance, the average STEM graduate has an expected five-year salary of $76,500, which is similar to what marketing and PR grads make at five years—50 percent of whom are liberal arts grads. The report includes example “pathways” for liberal arts graduates relative to career clusters that award them with progressively more responsibility and higher pay. The idea is that these graduates can propel themselves faster and further if they attain particular skills (listed in the report) and experience in different clusters.

The bottom line is that liberal arts degree holders are not doomed. Like everyone else, they can make the most of their job prospects if they attain the right combination of skills, talents, and knowledge along the way.

SOURCE: Mark Schneider and Matthew Sigelman, “Saving the Liberal Arts: Making the Bachelor’s Degree a Better Path to Labor Market Success,” American Enterprise Institute (February 2018).

Amber Northern is senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she supervises the Institute’s studies and research staff.  She has published in the areas of educational accountability, principal leadership, teacher quality, and academic standards, among others. Prior to joining Fordham, she served as senior study director at Westat. In that role, she provided evaluation services…

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