How should one measure the value of a college degree? In recent years, policy-makers have focused their attention on earnings as the primary measure of the value of a degree, often using that metric to single out humanities degrees as less valuable than others. But there are other—less tangible—measures of value, such as satisfaction with one's work and life more generally, that might also be applied to these discussions.
Without taking a position on which metrics are best, this report, based largely on original research commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Humanities Indicators, examines a variety of outcome measures, including graduates' satisfaction with their jobs, their finances, and their lives generally. The evidence shows that humanities graduates tend to earn less and have slightly higher levels of unemployment than business majors and graduates from some STEM fields. With respect to perceived well-being, however, humanities majors are similar to graduates from almost every other field. The data cannot explain the seeming disparity between the objective and subjective measures, but they provide a starting point for a more nuanced discussion about the relationship among fields of undergraduate study, employment, and quality of life. And for faculty, the report also points to a potential area of concern regarding the way they communicate to students about the skills developed in the course of an education in the field, as a substantial share of humanities graduates perceive little or no relationship between their job and their degree. The data were all gathered prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but past experience tracking this sort of data for the humanities—particularly through the Great Recession—gives us little reason to expect a significant shift in values over the medium term.