“What are you going to do with that?”

Dean Ann Ardis debunks misconceptions about the value of a humanities degree, citing new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

by Ann Ardis, Dean and Professor, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, George Mason University

“What are you going to do with that?”

“What are you going to do with that?” is a question I heard often from my family as an undergraduate and as a PhD student. As an English major with older siblings pursuing nursing and medical school, and with lots of cousins pursuing engineering and science degrees, there was always an edge to that question every time it came up at family gatherings.

I know now that this question was meant kindly—and was informed by my parents’ generation’s anxiousness to see their children enjoy the return on investment (ROI) on a college education they themselves had experienced as first- and second-generation college-goers.

College degrees changed the trajectories of their families’ lives: opened opportunities for economic and social mobility; moved them further away from their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ experiences, as first- and second-generation immigrants to this country in the nineteenth century, as farmers and day laborers. My aunts, uncles, and parents were keenly aware that they themselves had benefitted substantially from the grand expansion of the public higher education system in this country post-WWII. Though it burdened me at the time with self-doubt, among other things, they asked me that question frequently out of a caring sense of concern for my future.

I have the privilege of serving as the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University, an access-oriented public research university that serves and graduates high numbers of first-generation college students, historically underrepresented students, transfer students, military veterans and their dependents, and economically under-resourced students.

At this moment in American history, as confidence in higher education as a public good is increasingly in question or under attack, and as public perceptions of the value of a college degree relative to its cost continue to shift, I often remind my faculty of our fundamental purpose: we are here in service to our students’ education. We are here to engage them in the kinds of high-impact discovery learning experiences that public research universities can offer at scale, and that changes the trajectory of our students’ lives and the lives of their families as well.

It’s because of my institution’s access-oriented educational mission that I view the release of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Humanities Indicators report, “Humanities Majors at Work in all 50 States: What They Earn, What They Do,” as an important occasion for celebration. Drawing on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the data collected and analyzed in this study can help change national narratives about both the “death” of the humanities and the ROI on a four-year college degree.

The first national study of its kind, it offers a state-by-state analysis of salary ranges and unemployment rates of college graduates majoring in the humanities in comparison with salary ranges and unemployment rates of, on the one hand, high-school and two-year college graduates and, on the other hand, college graduates in the arts, education, social sciences, business, natural sciences, and engineering. In doing so it tells a very different story than the one you typically see circulating in the media these days. Key takeaways:

  • Earnings: Humanities graduates have earnings substantially higher than those without a college degree and on par with or higher than graduates from other fields except engineering and natural sciences.
  • Earnings disparities: Except in a few northwestern states, humanities majors earn at least 40% more than those with only a high school degree. In the Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) region, they earn 109% more than those without a college degree.
  • Unemployment: Humanities majors' unemployment rates are around 3% in every state, similar to those with engineering or business degrees and substantially lower than those without a college degree (state average of 6%, DMV region average 10%).
  • Occupational versatility: Legal professions and museum/library work significantly employ humanities graduates across all states, with percentages ranging from 28-35%, followed by employment in education, non-profits, management, and sales.

Without question, the total cost of college attendance should continue to be a concern for all of us.

And without question, earnings and occupation are not the only measure of success in one’s career or life.

But I am excited, as a dean, to have this new American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Humanities Indicators report to hand, in tandem with its State of the Humanities 2021:  Workforce and Beyond report, as resources for helping current undergraduate and graduate students see how humanities majors in all 50 states have put their degrees to work across a broad spectrum of occupations and industries.

I am tremendously grateful for our alumni’s generosity in mentoring our current students and helping them identify college-to-career pathways. In a myriad of ways, Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences alumni model for our current students what success can look like pursuing meaningful human work across many different sectors of the economy, and throughout a lifetime of careering and re-careering, as they also contribute generously to their communities as engaged citizens and civic leaders.

Having workforce data at scale in this new American Academy of Arts & Sciences report is the perfect complement to individual storytelling in helping today’s humanities majors think through “what are you going to do with that?”—and see clearly the vast world of work that opens to them through education and/or graduate education in these disciplines.

“What can’t you do with a humanities degree?” is a tagline we invite the Mason undergraduate admissions officers to keep top of mind as they begin their recruitment road trips. Even as the pace of technological change accelerates in reshaping jobs in ways that will require all of us to reinvent our careers, this American Academy of Arts & Sciences study deserves careful consideration. My hope is that it will help today’s college students see career opportunities differently, more clearly, across all sectors of a rapidly evolving global, knowledge-based economy.