Liberal Arts Degrees: They Really Do Pay Off

Anna Williams

liberal arts degreeIf you were a liberal arts major, you were probably reminded from the first day of freshman year that your degree would mean a paltry paycheck … at least compared with that of your engineering friends. You know, the whole starving artist thing.

But does that really pan out in the long run?

new report claims otherwise. The Association of American Colleges and Universities—a group that advocates for a comprehensive liberal arts education—examined U.S. Census salary data and found some pretty surprising results.

It’s true that, between the ages of 21 and 25, grads with degrees in the humanities or social sciences make just 84% as much as their peers in professional and pre-professional fields, like nursing or business, The Wall Street Journal reports.

But, during the peak earning years (56 to 60 years old), American workers with liberal arts degrees actually end up raking in, on average, about $2,000 more than their counterparts.

In other words: Patience is the key to a liberal arts career, at least when it comes to your paycheck.

One reason these grads might be catching up in the long term? About 40% of liberal arts majors eventually head to grad school or earn professional degrees, like J.D.s or M.B.A.s., which helps to boost their annual salaries by nearly $20,000.

RELATED: How a College Degree Pays Off After Age 75

“Recent attacks on the liberal arts … have painted a misleading picture of the value of the liberal arts,” AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider said in a press release. “As the findings in this report demonstrate, majoring in a liberal arts field can and does lead to successful and remunerative careers in a wide array of professions.”

While these findings are promising, footing a grad school bill now for the promise of a higher salary later might not be worth the loans you’ll have to take out to cover tuition. Use our Grad School Calculator to determine whether an advanced degree is worth it.

  • CrankyFranky

    I got an Arts Degree in 1983 – which earned me a public service office job – done a lot of different jobs since then – but am generally happy to have avoided the permanent back injury I see with a lot of physical (or nursing) workers – ready to retire, I’ve got enough – and a wide and fascinating intellectual life – compared to head-down ‘time is money’ Chinese cafe guy opposite me who came back from retirement (‘don’t talk about that’) as I think he was climbing the walls with boredom – I can spend all day on the internet discussing any topic with folk on the other side of the globe – then go for a nice stroll – a nice life.

  • nkdeck07

    So you make 2k more a year? That’s nothing seeing as how you have lost all of the time for that money to grow when you are younger. Plus if it does result in more professional degrees then it’s “congrats! you just spent another 100k in order to make 2k a year more when you are in your 60′s” Still doesn’t sound worth it to me.

    • jowannapeterso

      I finished school with less than2k in debt and have earned an average of 200k a year. Paid my way through law school-no debt. My education was WELL worth it!

      • fiona

        congrats! you must be awesome! just super! or just lucky.

  • jowannapeterso

    I have I guess what is close to a liberal arts degree-consumer/family science. My average salary(I am self employed after years of working for creeps and with weird/nosey people) has been no less than 200k a year on average.

    • curious

      What do you do?

      • jowannapeterso

        Financial Planning/Legal analyst/Writer Agent.