Study Shows That Wage Gap between Liberal Arts and Professional Majors Significantly Reduces in the Long Run

College Diploma

January 23, 2014

Liberal arts majors typically make lower salaries than those with professional or pre-professional degrees soon after earning a bachelor's degree. However, as The Chronicle of Education noted, a recent report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities revealed that in the long run, this wage gap narrows considerably.

Researchers studied annual median earnings of professionals in five-year age increments, from 21 to 65 years old. Data showed that recent graduates, or those between 21 and 25 years of age, with a humanities or social sciences degree earned a median salary of $26,271, while those in the same age group but with a professional or pre-professional degree earned a median salary of $31,183. Fast forward 35 years, and the wage gap is almost reversed. Humanities and social sciences majors between 56 and 60 years of age, the peak earning ages, earned a median of $66,185, compared to a median of $64,159 for pre-professional and professional majors.

Earnings potential and the extent of wage gap reduction, however, are largely attributed to an individual's specific major and level of educational attainment. For example, according to CNBC, liberal arts majors who entered the legal field earned $127,000 per year during peak earning years, while those in service professions earned $37,000.

A 2012 American Community Survey compared short-term and long-term median annual earnings for college graduates in various fields. The data shows that the wage gap reversal between humanities/social science majors and professional/pre-professional majors does not occur when comparing individuals of the same education level. For example, those who earned only a bachelor's degree in a professional or pre-professional field earned a median salary of $31,183 right after college and $61,094 during their peak earning years. On the other hand, humanities and social science majors with only a bachelor's degree make $25,986 right after college and $54,985 during their peak earning years.

Numbers are even bleaker when engineering graduates enter the mix, as they out- earn those in every other field examined. Engineering majors with only a bachelor's degree make $41,577 short-term and $88,352 long-term. Even when comparing professionals of all education levels, liberal arts majors typically make about two-thirds of an engineer's income during their peak earning years and 76 percent of the income of those with a physical science, natural science, or math degree.

Furthermore, while the wage gap might close or even reverse, the unemployment gap seems to persist, CNBC noted. When comparing the unemployment rate of 21 to 25-year-olds and 41 to 50-year-olds, the rate for liberal arts majors drops from 5.2 to 3.5 percent, while the rate for professional graduates drops from 4.2 to 3.1 percent.

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the report had two major effects: it served as a rebuttal against claims that liberal arts degrees have no value and sent a message to liberal arts majors to "[g]o to graduate school."

Compiled by Aneesha Jhingan


"How Liberal-Arts Majors Fare Over the Long Haul,", January 22, 2014, Beckie Supiano,

"Liberal Arts Salaries Are a Marathon, Not a Sprint,", January 22, 2014, Melissa Korn,

"There's hope for liberal arts grads after all: Salary study,", January 22, 2014, John w. Schoen,

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