4 Economic Surprises of the Humanities

Enrolled in a class so far from my field as to include “Economics” in the title, I roped my paper topic into something more akin to my English major. What, my research question asked, are the economic returns to pursuing the humanities?

Well, as you can guess, I found that the direct wage increase of getting a B.A. in the humanities was lower than the wage increase of getting a B.A. in most other categories of majors, especially the sciences. The only category with lower returns in America was education. Which is a bit of a shame, since I’ve got an English B.A. and I’m working on a masters in education…

However, a few interesting data emerged as I examined economics and the humanities:

1. The Humanities Make you Happy

Studying arts and humanities is correlated with greater job satisfaction regardless of wages. While holding a degree in science or engineering also increases job satisfaction, the amount of satisfaction depends on the amount of earnings. People with humanities degrees will be happier with their job regardless of how much they earn. This benefits employers, as well, since higher job satisfaction usually contributes to improved workforce participation

Check it out: Wolniak, G., & Pascarella, E. (2005). The effects of college major and job field congruence on job satisfaction. Journal of Vocational Behavior , 67, 233-251.

2. The Humanities Help Colleges

In a now well-known article from UCLA, a professor points out that humanities departments earn a university more revenue while costing less than other departments. Watson (2010) notes that the humanities departments of UCLA “generate $59 million in student fees, while spending only $53.5 million (unlike the physical sciences, which came up several million dollars short in that category).” And, don’t forget to factor in that one in three students entering higher education in America need freshman composition courses to succeed in their other classes.

This one is available online: Watson, R. N. (2010, March 21). Bottom line shows humanities really do make money. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

3. Foreign Language Won’t Expand the Wallet

This one is certainly less exciting then the others, but I found it interesting. I always thought speaking a foreign language made you more hirable. Unfortunately, it looks like the American market doesn’t reward foreign language abilities much at all, even controlling for the possibility that speakers of foreign languages have lower socio-economic backgrounds. Knowledge of foreign language increases earnings by 2-3%, according to the highest estimate I found (Saiz and Zoido, 2005). According to some estimates, foreign language decreased earnings, though always minimally.

Saiz, A. a. (2005). Listening to what the world says: Bilingualism and earnings in the united states. The Review of Economics and Statistics , 87 (3), 523-538.

4. The Humanities Favor Women

Culturally, we tend to associate women with humanities education. And, economically speaking, women do gain the greatest financial benefit (or, well, the least financial loss, anyway). Women’s earnings vary less based on field of study than do men’s. A woman with a B.A. in the humanities earns about $3,500 a year less than the average B.A. woman’s earnings. However, a humanities-educated man earns almost $9,000 a year less than the average man with a BA. But, keep in mind, recent research dividing earnings by major isn’t available (or I couldn’t find it), so these numbers are from 1995. So, at least in 1995, a woman stood to lose fewer wages by choosing humanities than did a man, although both forwent some earnings.

Finnie, R. a. (2003). Earning difference by major field of study. Economics of Education Review , 22, 179-192.

Grogger, J. a. (1995). Changes in College Skills and the Rise in the College Wage Premium. The Journal of Human Resources , 30 (2), 280-310.

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Of course, there is so much more to life than economics and financial returns. This is just one dimension through which to examine life with a B.A. in the humanities.

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