When the Humanities Are Worth It

The ongoing public debate over the value of a college degree in the humanities reminds me of an old horse-racing joke: An owner takes his injured animal to the vet. “Will I be able to race this horse again?” he asks. The vet, taking his question literally, replies: “Of course you will. And you’ll probably win!”

The right answer to the wrong question might make you laugh, but it won’t teach you anything worth knowing.

Here’s a question that’s hot today—and also wrong: Can we, in economic terms, justify investing in a degree in the humanities? One needn’t look far to see how misguided this mindset can be.

Barely a decade ago, the conventional wisdom held that a law degree was, beyond a reasonable doubt, a smart investment. While many sectors of the economy were in upheaval, law firm hiring was on the rise and entry level salaries in large urban areas were surpassing $150,000, according to the American Bar Association Journal.

Then, the bottom dropped out.

More than one in eight members of the U.S. law school class of 2012 were still unemployed nine months after graduation. And the unemployment rate for newly minted JD’s has worsened every year since 2008.

The median law firm salary for the class of 2012 was $90,000—down dramatically from the class of 2009’s median of $130,000. That would be a heck of a pay cut in any industry. But it’s especially painful when the average alum exits the commencement stage with about $100,000 in education debt.

Law schools, too, have been paying the price. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education applications are down more than a third just since 2011. First-year enrollments are at their lowest levels in almost 40 years. And LSAT registrations, a leading indicator, suggest these figures have not yet hit bottom.

All of which brings me back to that poor racehorse.

The right question to ask of the humanities is not whether they are still worth it. The right question is: When is a humanities degree worth it?

For starters, it’s time to retire the lame stereotype of the impoverished humanities scholar. Yesterday’s liberal arts majors who are now at their peak earnings ages (56-60) actually earn more than their peers who chose professional or pre-professional majors according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and they are more likely to have attained lucrative graduate degrees. Today’s hospital administration jobs may yet turn out to be yesterday’s law firm positions. Tomorrow’s art historians may carve out entirely new career opportunities by incorporating some analytical courses into their studies.

What’s more, economic returns on advanced degrees generally do not account for the massive non-monetary value of having a job you love instead of one you hate. (Economists may finally be starting to take seriously these “unpriced amenities.”) Simply trying to maximize your lifetime bet on your future earnings potential is no way to choose a major.

Cycles of economic boom and bust like the recent one in the law are among the few professional sureties in life. Ultimately, you will need more than good data on which degrees garner the biggest salaries to sustain you through the turbulent times. For that, you will also need a passion for learning and a real depth of knowledge about something that is important to you.

Innovative new measures of educational outcomes—PayScale’s ROI ranking is one of my favorites—should absolutely serve as guardrails on your decision-making. If you could just as happily study nursing as nineteenth century German philosophy, then by all means, consider what the data tells you about the relative financial security of each option. But asking whether you can beat the humanities in a career-earnings horserace is the wrong question.

Though a degree is an investment, students are not investors. Unlike just about every other consumer decision we make, the choice of a college or graduate degree is one that most of us face only once, no resale or exchange allowed.

The right question, then, is which area of study will prepare you for a lifetime of professional joy and challenge.

If one of the humanities has won your heart, then that’s the horse you should ride.

1. “Law School Class of 2012 Finds More Jobs, Starting Salaries Rise – But Large Class Size Hurts Overall Employment Rate” (2013.) National Association for Law Placement.
2. Debra Cassens Weiss “Average Debt of Private Law School Grads Is $125K; It’s Highest at These Five Schools” (2012.) ABA Journal.
3. Matthew Yglesias “The Neglected Economics of Trying to Find a Job You Enjoy Doing” (2012.) Slate.