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Don’t be so quick to cast aside a liberal arts degree | American Enterprise Institute

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Not many months
pass between articles calling into question the value of a liberal arts degree
and pushing students toward the more “practical” majors found in science,
technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The rising costs of college coupled
with increased pressure on high school graduates to pursue a postsecondary
degree has left many liberal arts students, the story goes, saddled with high
debt levels and few prospects for immediate employment. In the popular
imagination, it seems Plato no longer leads his pupils to the heights of the
Acropolis but to a $10/hour barista job.

A recent New York Times article by David Deming at Harvard highlights new findings that challenge this assumption. Deming points out that while many STEM degree holders enjoy a much higher-paying first job than the average liberal arts student, their earnings advantage declines as they progress through their career. In fact, by the time they are 40 years old, the salary gap between STEM and some liberal arts majors like history and the social sciences has largely disappeared.

According to Deming, there are good reasons for this trend. Students who study the liberal arts seem to be more adept at transitioning into managerial positions or high-skill fields like law, which pay significantly more than typical entry-level work. This is likely because the courses they take spend more time developing “implicit” or “soft” skills like verbal and written communication, critical thinking, and understanding human interaction. Employer surveys consistently show high demand for these types of skills (which are also hallmarks of effective management), and some research suggests that liberal arts programs are more effective at developing these soft skills in their students than other degree types.

Further, the skills required in STEM are changing so rapidly that older workers find the knowledge that got them into the job increasingly obsolete. The constant demand for new skills coupled with competition from a steady stream of new workers trained in the latest technologies seems to contribute to the flat-lining wages — and early exodus — of the STEM workforce.

The Deming op-ed builds on findings from a longer working paper that he and Kadeem Noray, a doctoral student at Harvard, released in 2018 highlighting that 58 percent of STEM graduates leave the STEM field within 10 years as their skill demands change and wage premiums decline. Later this year, my AEI colleague Daniel Cox and I will release a report based on a survey of the attitudes and culture of the STEM workforce we commissioned from Reuters-Ipsos. The preliminary results suggest that changing worker interests and a premium on interpersonal skills relative to technical skills both play significant roles in whether workers leave or stay in the STEM field.

It takes a lot to succeed in the modern workplace, and many of the core components that employers are looking for refer to a set of skills that are both vital and hard to quantify. At the same time, students who choose to study the liberal arts are often met with inquisitive looks and questions of “and what are you going to do with that?” The answer, it turns out, may be “quite a lot.”

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