It is not hard to see that higher education is facing a looming existential crisis. As the cost of a university degree continues to soar and college debt piles up, many are starting to question if a college degree is really worth it.
A century ago, university was for elites and getting a degree was not about preparing students for work, it was about producing well-rounded aristocrats with appreciation for art, history and culture.
As time went on, education became more open and democratic. It started to become a requirement for upward mobility, and was directly linked to the career prospects that a degree afforded.
The humanities catch a bad rap nowadays. It’s basically a cliché that a STEM degree is a smart choice, and people with liberal arts degrees are easy targets for jokes and for politicians who want to seem smart and practical about higher education. But like most things in this world, the truth about the value of a humanities degree vs a STEM degree is more complex than either proponents or opponents of the humanities make it out to be.
In fact, a humanities education in many ways is just as relevant for the modern job market as any STEM degree.
What are the humanities and what do they actually teach?
At their core, the humanities are meant to examine and understand the human experience. They do this through subjects like Art, Literature, History, Philosophy, and Music. However, what is actually taught to a humanities student at a university is often misunderstood.
High School humanities curriculum is often comprised of memorization and summary — memorizing dates and names in history class, memorizing music notes and language vocabulary, reading books and writing book reports that summarize what you read. Especially now with Google always at the tip of your fingers, memorization is practically useless. Anyone can find any name or fact they want in a matter of seconds.
The good news for humanities degrees is that they leave memorization in high school and instead teach critical thinking, analysis of information, and communication. Students are required to read books, documents, academic papers and watch films, absorbing facts and data and identifying the most relevant aspects before comparing, contrasting and compiling the information into essays and presentations. The best humanities students are those that can create the most well-reasoned and compelling arguments and analysis based on facts and evidence and effectively communicate those arguments.
Why is this relevant for the job market?
A 2018 study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities polled 501 business executives and 500 hiring managers and asked them what learning priorities they most highly value in job applicants. The top five were:
- Ability to effectively communicate orally
- Critical thinking/analytical reasoning
- Ethical judgement and decision making
- Ability to work effectively in teams
- Ability to work independently (prioritize, manage time)
All of these are skills that one can develop from a humanities degree just as easily as a STEM degree. The 7th priority on the list, “Able to communicate effectively in writing”, is arguably better taught through the humanities than any STEM major.
You have to scroll down to priorities 13 and 14 to find something directly related to STEM, “Stay current on changing tech/applications to workplace” and “Able to work with numbers and statistics”.
This is not to say that a humanities degree is better than a STEM degree, just that a humanities education can effectively meet the vast majority of the top skills and abilities that hiring managers and executives are looking for in recent college graduates.
STEM Majors Vs Humanities Majors
So humanities degrees aren’t useless, and actually do teach skills that are relevant for people who want to earn a living (in addition to the argument that studying the human condition increases empathy and makes us better people). How do the outcomes for humanities majors compare to their STEM counterparts?
Well, one strike against the humanities is that STEM majors have about a 1% higher rate of employment, although those with a humanities degree still had a higher rate of employment that the general public.
A second is that the median earnings for a college graduate with a STEM degree is about 36% higher than that of a college graduate with a humanities degree.
It’s not all bad news for humanities majors — studies have found that, as their careers progress, those with humanities degrees actually close the gap and earn more on overage than STEM majors later in the careers, due in part to the fact that they are more likely to pursue graduate degrees and end up in roles with a leadership track and room for advancement.
Those with a liberal arts degree are also more likely to be engaged at work, according to a Gallup-Purdue survey. Liking your job certainly has a value which isn’t reflected in average salary or unemployment rates.
The bottom line is that one degree is not inherently better than the other. But that doesn’t solve anything when it comes to the future of higher education, and what needs to be done to meet the ever-changing demands of the future of work.
The Future of Higher Education
Academics, politicians, companies and everyone in between have an opinion on where the future of education is going. The consensus seems to trend towards more industry specific training, with experiential learning components such as apprenticeships, similar to the types of degrees you see in Germany and other foreign universities.
There is certainly a lot of value in experiential learning. Many of the skills that are lacking in recent grads, according to many companies, are those that can be learned only through hands-on work experience.
But some skills, like writing, communication, research and analyzing qualitative information, can be best taught through humanities education. Therefore, it is important that universities don’t skew too far in the direction of teaching only industry-specific, technical skills.
If you have a humanities degree and want to compete for a job in a high-growth industry like tech, you may be in luck. Even as graduates in the humanities are declining, tech companies are beginning to hire an increasing number of employees with a humanities background.
This could mean that soon, there will be a significant gap in the skills provided by graduates of the humanities.
For those have degrees such as history and English, it certainly can’t hurt to do some Coursera courses to stay up to date with the latest trends. But remember to be proud of your background, as you contribute a unique set of skills that has value in the modern workplace.