Financial Return on Humanities Degrees

Jeffrey Dorfman, an economics professor at the University of Georgia, has analyzed the value of undergraduate degrees in a variety of fields and reports some of the results in a column at Forbes. Conventional wisdom may hold that philosophy and other humanities fields are “destined to produce underemployed graduates, struggling to pay off their student loans, and perhaps happy to work as Starbucks baristas,” but his data shows otherwise.

Here’s what he did:

I took the early and mid-career average salaries by major from and used those to estimate the annual average pay increase for each major’s graduates. Then I computed the present value of 45 working years of those gradually increasing salaries (the present value is the lump sum in dollars you would accept now in exchange for all those future salaries). I then subtracted the present value of the same 45 years worth of earnings from a high school degree. Thus, these are not lifetime earnings, but the value of additional earnings from a bachelor’s degree.

And here is what he found:

The present value of the extra earnings that graduates in humanities majors can expect over their lifetime is $302,400 for drama majors, $444,700 for English majors, $537,800 for history majors, and $658,900 for philosophy majors. If a person goes to a top-level, in-state, public university with no financial aid of any kind, the total cost is likely to run around $80,000 (tuition, books, and living expenses). That means the much maligned humanities majors are still getting an A in economics because the returns on their investments are quite high (in the 300 to 700 percent range).

Major Early Career Salary Mid Career Salary Lifetime Earnings Gain
Art $36,100 $57,100 $315,500
Drama $35,600 $56,300 $302,400
English $38,700 $65,200 $444,700
French $40,900 $66,700 $470,900
History $39,700 $71,000 $537,800
Philosophy $41,700 $78,300 $658,900


UPDATE: Raised here: is philosophy’s good performance on this metric, relative to other humanities, owed to the wage gap between men and women?

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