Why There is No Such Thing as a Worthless Major

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Some may assume that liberal arts majors are, at best, “easy,” and at worst, “worthless.” For example, many people may think that all you can do with a liberal arts degree is to become a teacher.

On the other hand, STEM-related majors—math, chemistry, engineering, etc.—get their own fair share of shade, even though they pay well. For example, the average entry-level STEM job makes an average annual salary of $66,123, compared to $52,299 for non-STEM jobs.

But the truth is that both art majors and STEM majors have pros and cons. To understand why, it is helpful to look at the value and applications of these two fields of study and why employers might want to hire graduates from both.

The Value of A College Degree—Regardless of Major

In general, there is value in investing in a college education. Those with at least a college degree make a much better living compared to those with only a high school diploma, or less. Take a look at the following comparisons of annual salaries provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Less than a high school diploma: $25,636 per year
  • A high school diploma: $35,256 per year
  • Some college, but no degree: $38,376 per year
  • An associate’s degree: $41,496 per year
  • A bachelor’s degree: $59,124 per year
  • A master’s degree: $69,732 per year
  • A doctorate degree: $84,396

Furthermore, college graduates earn significantly more money over their lifetime than those who graduated high school or dropped out of college early. In fact, according to a 2016 report by the College Board, 25-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree earn an average annual income that is 67% higher than high school graduates—a difference of $24,600.

Additionally, young adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher enjoy an employment rate of 88% in 2016, while those with just a high school diploma had an employment rate of 69%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Pros and Cons of a Liberal Arts Degree

There are a wide variety of liberal arts degrees to choose from, ranging from literature and English to the social sciences.

The skills learned while obtaining an art degree are especially valuable in today’s market and beyond. For example, in the world of business and tech startups, the creativity and critical thinking of an arts major is especially valuable.

In fact, a number of today’s CEOs have liberal arts degrees, including Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Richard Pleper of HBO, Susan Wojcicki of YouTube, and Stewart Butterfield of Slack.

Some advantages from a liberal arts degree include:

  • 93% of employers report that a job candidate’s capacity for critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills is more important than their undergraduate major.
  • 4 out of 5 employers prefer graduates with broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.
  • Serving as the foundation for higher degrees in law, business, medicine, education, and psychology
  • Keeping the humanities—the art, culture, music, language, and literature that make us human—alive for another generation
  • Offering opportunity for artistic expression and training
  • Enabling you to potentially earn an average of $66,000 per year during peak earning ages (56-60), which is $2,000 more than people with professional degrees

Some disadvantages include:

  • Humanities majors often need to seek additional training, degrees, or experience to gain employable job skills
  • Recent graduates only earn an average of $40,000, which is lower than the average for all graduates ($48,270)
  • Liberal arts majors earn less than STEM majors and are less likely to get relevant jobs right after graduation
  • 4.3% of humanities majors are unemployed, compared to an average of 3.6% among bachelor’s degree holders
  • Humanities majors have a 45% probability of being underemployed in their first post-college job–that is, employed in a position that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree

The Pros and Cons of STEM Degrees

Just like with liberal arts degrees, there are advantages and disadvantages of STEM degrees, which offers students technical, applicable skills that are desirable in today’s job market. STEM students enjoy a hands-on, experiential education that brings greater understanding to today’s real-world problems.

Some pros of of STEM degrees include:

  • The average entry-level STEM job is $66,123, compared to $52,299 for non-STEM jobs
  • STEM graduates are more likely to be employed in a relevant position after graduation, with a 29% probability of being underemployed
  • Job opportunities are growing—in 2016, 8.8 million STEM jobs were created
  • STEM graduates earn more than other college graduates, regardless if they work in a STEM-related job or not. STEM majors earn an average of $81,011, compared to an average of $60,828
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that STEM employment from 2010 to 2020 will grow by 18.7%, compared to 14.3% for all occupations
  • STEM fields tend to be intellectually challenging
  • STEM majors teach the skills to advance technology and improve quality of life

Some disadvantages of STEM degrees are:

  • A college major is no guarantee of future earnings or job prospects. About half of workers with college training in a STEM field are working in a non-STEM job
  • STEM majors can be challenging and may need preparation beginning in middle school or high school
  • Some students may choose to enroll for the sole purpose of making more money and may end up sorely disappointed
  • 74 percent of those with a STEM bachelor’s degree are not employed in STEM occupations
  • Students studying a STEM degree are 6% more likely to change majors than non-STEM students

Is College Worth It?

Whether your interests lie in the arts or sciences, a college degree is worth the investment and the effort. Both STEM and liberal arts degrees are useful and needed in today’s market, and when people who study in both fields work together, they have a combined skill set to solve some of the world’s most interesting and important questions.


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