NEW YORK (MainStreet) President Barack Obama apologized this week for disparaging the earning potential of art history majors in a speech on job training. A University of Texas at Austin professor had objected to the president's remarks, informing him in a message sent through the White House website that she and her colleagues "challenge students to think, read, and write critically" -- skills that are applicable in lots of fields. In the course of saying sorry, Obama related that "art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might have otherwise missed." His point, he explained, was "about the jobs market, not the value of art history."
Other educational benefits aside, there's still a disagreement between president and professor about the practical utility of studying the subject. So who's right, from a financial perspective? Do liberal arts degrees, often derived as indulgent and wasteful, deserve their bad economic rap? Or do they prepare students to be successful workers?
Speaking from the floor of a General Electric plant outside Milwaukee last month, the president lamented that "young people no longer see the trade and skilled manufacturing as a viable career."
"But I promise you," he continued, "folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree."
Right away he tried to mitigate any potential offense: he wasn't disparaging the study of culture, just promoting the value of vocational instruction. "Nothing wrong with an art history degree," Obama explained. "I love art history. I don't want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I'm just saying, you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education, as long as you get the skills and training that you need."
Obama was distinguishing between higher education and work training, not among different college majors. But his choice of art history as a rhetorical piñata hardly seems arbitrary: what could be less relevant to today's economy, the insinuation goes, than expertise in antiquated art? The president might have mentioned some other humanities field English literature or Classics but it's basically impossible to imagine a STEM discipline (science, technology, engineering, math) or a pre-professional degree being invoked in this context. Is this fair?
In terms of starting salaries, at least, there's truth to the belief that a liberal arts degree puts graduates at a disadvantage. Last month, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) released a report on pay for the Class of 2013 by major, containing data from 400,000 employers. Overall, graduates' average starting salary was $45,633, up 2.6% from $44,482 for the Class of 2012. Here's how that broke down by discipline:
Engineering - $62,564
"Starting salaries for engineering majors barely moved from last year's average of $62,655," according to NACE, declining just 0.1%. Among reported engineering disciplines, mechanical engineering got the biggest boost: the average starting salary rose 2.5% to $64,500. The most remunerative engineering degree was, once again, petroleum engineering, with an average starting salary of $97,000.
Computer Sciences $59,084
Average starting pay dropped slightly for those with computer-related degrees (0.2%), although those who studied computer science specifically enjoyed an increase of 0.5%, bringing their starting salary to $64,700.
Overall, business majors' average starting salary rose 2.3%. Every individual degree saw an increase except hospitality services management, which dropped 0.2%. The largest increase went to international business majors, up 3.8% to $46,900, though the highest average salary was earned by information systems majors ($60,700).
The average starting salary for communications graduates rose almost 2%. All three subfields saw increases: advertising, up 1.9% to $48,100; communications, up 1.8% to $45,300; and journalism, up 2.4% to $41,900.
Math & Sciences $42,956
"Collectively, the average starting salary rose 1.1 percent" for these degrees. Math was up 1.8% to $50,200, while chemistry declined 0.4% to $45,300. Construction science/management majors were the highest-paid subgroup, with an average starting salary of $56,900.
Down 0.2% overall from last year, education actually saw increases in all but one of its individual disciplines. Special ed majors earned the highest average starting salary, $46,000.
Humanities & Social Sciences $38,045
Of the seven "broad categories" listed in the report, humanities and social sciences saw the largest increase in its majors' average starting salary: 2.9%. The biggest gain was for visual and performing arts majors, whose initial pay jumped 5.9% -- bringing it all the way up to $35,800. "Most of the individual majors had increases in the 1 to 2% range," NACE reports. "Professional, scientific, and technical services employers reported a large number of salaries, averaging $36,200. And the top-paying positions reported for these students were sales and marketing positions, with an average salary of $59,900."
So the starting salary picture is indeed relatively discouraging for art history majors and their liberal arts comrades -- unless they go into sales and marketing. But of course that's not the whole story. In the week before Obama's speech, the Association of American Colleges and Universities released a report on "earnings and long-term career paths" for college graduates with different majors. Among its findings: "At peak earnings ages (56-60 year) workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences earn annually on average about $2,000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields."
In other words, those who study the liberal arts in college eventually catch up to their peers with undergraduate degrees in nursing or business. But not the STEM geeks: science and mathematics concentrators made an average of $86,550 during their peak years, 30% more than humanities and social sciences majors did.
In the words of AAC&U president Carol Geary Schneider: "Recent attacks on the liberal arts by ill-informed commentators and policy makers have painted a misleading picture of the value of the liberal arts to individuals and our communities. As the findings in this report demonstrate, majoring in a liberal arts field can and does lead to successful and remunerative careers in a wide array of professions."
--Written by Eamon Murphy for MainStreet