Balancing Hopes, Dreams, and a Low-Pay Major | News


Humanities majors are more than a punchline. Not everyone can or wants to be a STEM major, and the world would be a poorer place if they were.

To have good things to read, music that inspires, perspectives that challenge us – to have a sense of reward and meaning in life – we must have students who pursue university studies that do not directly lead to a big paycheck.

It turns the pursuit of intellectual curiosity and artistic appreciation into a balancing act: the likelihood of you making a good living versus the debt you incur along the way.

“I encourage students to find that balance between what they love and what pays off,” says Nicole Smith, research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce. “I’m not saying how beneficial these positions are to our society as a whole, but if you can’t pay off your student loan, you’ll be in serious trouble,” Smith says.

Liberal arts graduates face longer odds than science, technology, engineering, and math degrees, but a well-chosen humanities major doesn’t have to be a vow of poverty.


To assess the value of earning a specific degree at a specific institution, consider the concept of the price-earnings premium, spearheaded by Michael Itzkowitz, senior higher education researcher at Third Way, a center-left think tank.

It measures what you pay out of pocket, including loans, against how much you’ll earn each year above the income of a typical high school graduate. The results show how quickly you can get a return on investment in your college major.

The majority of liberal arts degrees lead to a “very good return on investment,” Itzkowitz says, but the specific program you graduate from and the type of degree you earn will affect individual results.

Bachelor’s degree programs that allow graduates to recoup their costs in five years or less include what you’d expect: Registered nurses, electrical engineering, and dental assistants all make the list.

Among the programs with no economic return on investment: theatre, fine arts and anthropology.

Itzkowitz says the majority of college programs allow students to recoup their costs in 10 years or less. “College is still worth it the vast majority of the time,” he says.

Unfortunately, his research also found that nearly a quarter of all college programs show graduates failing to recoup their costs within 20 years of graduation.

There are several tools that can help you compare cost, revenue, and debt data:

— The College Scorecard, a data tool from the US Department of Education.

— An interactive map of Third Way price/earnings bonuses.

— The Buyer Beware tool from the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce.

Of course, education and major are not the only predictors of income. Your salary will also be affected by where you live, your gender and race, whether you work in the public or private sector, and your level of experience.


Your humanities degree could go a lot further if you earn a higher degree — generally, the more education you have, the higher your income, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But you should continue to weigh the costs against the benefits, because it’s also easier to get into debt. A graduate degree can increase your earning potential or simply increase your debt.

For example, if you majored in liberal arts for your bachelor’s degree, you can expect a median annual salary of $50,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But if you get a graduate degree in law, by taking on more debt, you could earn a median of $126,930. A master’s degree in fine arts, on the other hand, is unlikely to generate higher earnings: the median annual salary is $42,000.

Your other options might include a minor in a field with higher earnings, an internship to gain on-the-job experience, or finding cheaper graduate programs if your intended field calls for it.

If you incur additional student debt, remember that the federal government offers payment plans that tie your payment amount to your income. Most private loans do not.


If you’re already working in a low-paying field and have student loan debt, see how you can lower your payments or pay off your debt.

If you’re having trouble making your payments, consider signing up for an income-driven repayment plan, which ties payments to your monthly income. The amount of your payments will increase as your income increases.

Those working in public sector fields should learn the ins and outs of public service loan forgiveness, a cumbersome process to get your loans canceled after 10 years of payments on an eligible payment plan any working full-time in an eligible field.


This article was provided to The Associated Press by personal finance website NerdWallet. Anna Helhoski is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski.


Comments are closed.