Majoring in the liberal arts in college can be a fine choice for millions of undergraduates at four-year colleges and universities, but community college students should think twice before declaring a major in English or general studies.
Although it is true that bachelor’s degree recipients with degrees in the humanities and social sciences earn less, on average, than those who studied engineering or computer science, most liberal arts majors with bachelor’s degrees make a good living. One recent study found that the median anthropology graduate earns 70 percent of the median earnings of computer and information systems graduates. It’s reasonable for students to choose academic and career paths they find satisfying, rather than aiming to maximize their earnings. In fact, the world would be a far less appealing place if students stopped making those choices.
But, as we document in our new book, Making College Work: Pathways to Success for Disadvantaged Students, the labor market provides almost no reward for associate degrees in the liberal arts.
Most students who enroll in community colleges expect to transfer and earn bachelor’s degrees, but only about 14 percent accomplish this goal. These students may concentrate in the liberal arts, often called “general studies” at the community college level, hoping the credits will transfer more easily than work focused on preparation for specific occupations. But students who never transfer and instead earn associate degrees in the humanities as terminal degrees—or leave without any credential—are often surprised when their job opportunities are limited.
Earnings are much higher for associate of science (AS) degree recipients than for associate of arts (AA) degree recipients. In Florida, an AS degree holder earns about 60 percent more than a high school graduate, while an AA degree holder earns just 30 percent more.
Bachelor’s degree recipients from all majors have higher average earnings than high school graduates, but the same is not true for associate degree recipients. Median earnings for all associate degree holders are only about $40,000. Even among the 60 percent of associate degree holders ages 25 to 64 who work full time, about 20 percent earn less than $30,000. For these students, landing on the lower end of the earnings distribution means having difficulty making ends meet.
Why do so many students in community college major in liberal arts?
About 40 percent of students who first enrolled in community colleges in 2003–04 either majored in the humanities or social sciences or reported no major. The expectation of transfer and BA attainment is an important part of this story, but there are other explanations. Many students know little about which skills or credentials are valued in the labor market. They arrive in college with little idea of what they want to study or what kinds of careers they aspire to. They take courses without much academic or career counseling. When it is time to declare a major, liberal studies and general studies are often the default categories in which students land when they cannot make a more affirmative choice.
Other features of community colleges reinforce this pattern. Most tenured faculty have degrees in liberal arts, rather than health care or other high-demand fields, and may resist pressures to allocate more resources to occupational fields. And in more technical areas, faculty and equipment costs are high. If the colleges receive the same tuition or state subsidy dollars no matter what students study, and the costs are higher in technical fields, they have little incentive to spend their scarce resources expanding capacity in these areas.
How can we address this imbalance?
At a minimum, community colleges need to provide more academic and career counseling and other supports for students. Institutions’ resources are stretched thin, and providing more of these services would mean ignoring other needs. Community colleges need more resources to adequately target the provision of academic and career counseling and other support systems.
These colleges also need incentives to strengthen programs in high-demand fields. Incorporating students’ postcollege earnings into outcomes-based funding models, rather than focusing only on completion rates, is one promising option. Although there are potential pitfalls with this approach, it merits experimentation and evaluation at the state level.
It is imperative that we expand occupational degree and certificate programs in community colleges, in addition to developing other productive paths to remunerative careers. Everyone deserves the opportunity to pursue their interests and to develop their intellectual and analytical capacities. But they also deserve the opportunity to be well compensated in the workforce.