Should you talk your college kid out of a liberal arts major?

Should I talk my kid out of declaring a liberal arts major?

Beth takes on a tricky new money question—and offers expert advice on how to resolve it and how to talk it over in constructive ways.


The situation

My son is an undeclared freshman in college, but he’s fallen in love with the American history class he’s taking and is threatening to become a history major! My husband is a corporate tax accountant and I’m a chemical engineer. Our majors led to very comfortable salaries and a stable financial life. But what kind of job is a liberal arts major qualified for? He’ll come out with a manageable chunk of student debt, but I’m worried that if he can’t find well-paying work, he’ll struggle to repay it. How can I convince my son to choose a more practical major?

—Renee, Falls Church, Va.

The solution

I’m afraid I can’t tell you how to talk your kid out of choosing a particular major. Instead, I’m going to argue that your kid might not be on the wrong track after all. Turns out, the image of starving humanities majors and big-paycheck business majors isn’t as simple as it seems. Your son’s hankering for history might actually give him a leg up in the job market, if he’s willing to compromise a bit.

Let me start by agreeing with you—in part. Certain majors can yield higher salaries. To see this in action, play around with this handy tool from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project. Select a major from the drop-down menu, and you’ll see the most common jobs associated with it, and a range of earnings. There are outliers: Chemical engineering and pharmaceutical sciences majors tend to pull in a lot more money. Social workers skew toward the lower end. But if your kid is resourceful, he can turn a humanities degree into a solid paycheck. A 2015 study from the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found that “the top 25 percent of education majors earn $59,000 or more annually, while the bottom 25 percent of engineering majors earn $59,000 or less annually.” And when you add a graduate degree, the median mid-career annual salary for a history major jumps up $26,000 to hit $80,000.

The conventional wisdom that employers only want “practical” skills is rapidly becoming outdated.

But now there’s evidence that humanities majors might be getting an edge on the others. You’ve probably heard the bad news: Robots are coming for our jobs. Developments in automation and artificial intelligence have meant that companies can save a bundle on salaries by turning over certain tasks—both blue-collar and white-collar—to The Machines. The good news for us humans is that computers are still pretty lousy at the soft skills—interacting with others, thinking outside the algorithm, and so on. In other words, exactly the kinds of skills the humanities excel at. (If you want to have a laugh at our android overlords, check out what happened when they tried to take J.K. Rowling’s job.)

A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research confirms it: “The labor market increasingly rewards social skills,” writes the author, Harvard’s David J. Deming. “Between 1980 and 2012, jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the U.S. labor force. Math-intensive but less social jobs—including many STEM occupations—shrank by 3.3 percentage points over the same period.” Translation: Jobs that lend themselves to automation appear to be on the decline.

The conventional wisdom that employers only want “practical” skills is rapidly becoming outdated. The very skills that your son stands to learn from his history professors—empathy, working with others, synthesizing ideas, understanding cultural context, creativity—will likely be more valuable as our workplaces become more automated. If your kid can swing the course load—and you can afford it—you might suggest a double major in a STEM or business field as well as history. The mix of soft and hard skills can make for a killer one-two punch of analytic and conceptual acumen when she’s interviewing for that first job.

The good news for us humans is that computers are still pretty lousy at the soft skills—interacting with others, thinking outside the algorithm, and so on.

One final point: I hear your concerns about repaying student loans. Over the past decade, as the burden of debt has risen, career-focused majors have become much more popular. The number of bachelor’s degrees conferred on English majors has fallen sharply, while degrees in business have climbed. But here’s a surprising wrinkle: A 2017 survey by Gallup-Strada asked graduates if they regretted their choice of major. More than a third of them did, but student debt had little to do with it. Forty-one percent of people wish they’d chosen a different major whether they’d borrowed more than $75,000 or less than $15,000 in student loans.

Choosing a major is a difficult choice—it’s no wonder so many students change their minds before graduation. In the end, I think your kid can pursue his academic passion, while still putting food on the table and paying off student loans. The best you can do as a parent is show him smart ways to follow his interests and achieve financial well-being.

ask beth choosing a major college college career college major humanities majors liberal arts liberal arts major student loan repayment

Join the conversation