What's a liberal arts degree worth nowadays?

July 25, 2012

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Doomsayers be damned: America’s higher-education model, and its price tag, ain’t broke. So says Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro. In a recent op-ed for the L.A. Times, Schapiro and Lewis & Clark College President Barry Glassner argue that the college premium — the ratio of college earnings to high school earnings — justifies the investment in higher education. Individuals with a college degree now make almost 85 percent more over a lifetime than those with only a high school diploma.

But statistics are tricky — while one economist opts to focus on the long-term returns, another is focused on the immediate future, which, for many recent college graduates, is bleak. More than 50 percent of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 were jobless or underemployed in the last year. So if and when a college graduate gets a job, he’s likely to earn, on average, $20,000 more annually than a person with a high school diploma. But when the average student is graduating with $25,000 in student-loan debt, he or she might be a bit more focused on getting a paycheck, any paycheck.

This might explain why, as Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder is quick to point out, there are 80,000 bartenders and 115,000 janitors with bachelor’s degrees.

It's true, some majors pay more than others. PayScale did a salary survey of the top college majors that lead to high salaries. You won’t find liberal arts in the top 10 below — the classic course of study is about 75 down from the top of the list.

DegreesDegrees
Methodology
Annual pay for Bachelors graduates without higher degrees. Typical starting graduates have 2 years of experience; mid-career have 15 years. See full methodology for more.

The median starting salary for a liberal arts major is just under $38,000. And the mid-career average is just over $63,000 — so is a liberal arts education worth it? President Schapiro and Professor Vedder help provide a cost-benefit analysis on Afternoon Shift.

So what do you think: What’s the value of a liberal arts education? Call (312) 923-9239 or join the conversation on Twitter at #AfternoonShift.