People who major in the humanities and social sciences don’t earn as much as their classmates in the physical and natural sciences, math, or engineering, but the gap is not as wide as has been portrayed.

That’s the message of a new report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which represents liberal-arts colleges and universities, on the eve of the association’s annual conference.

The report, which was also produced by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, refutes what it calls “assaults” on the humanities and social sciences, using Census Bureau data to show that the income gap between humanities and social-science graduates and others narrows over their careers.

Humanities majors may earn an average of $5,000 less than professionals and preprofessionals right out of college, it says, but they make an average of $2,000 more by the time they reach their 40s.

Still, humanities and social-science majors persist at making less over the course of their lives than engineers and people with degrees in the physical and natural sciences and math, the report concedes. They can expect average peak earnings of $66,185, compared to $64,149 for professionals or preprofessionals, $86,550 for workers with degrees in the physical and natural sciences and math, and $97,751 for engineers.

And the report says there is an oversupply of humanities graduates with degrees in foreign languages and linguistics, the visual and performing arts, theology, and biological sciences.The unemployment rate for humanities and social-science grads is also higher at every age than that of their counterparts in other fields, albeit only four-tenths of a percentage point higher for those in their 40s.

The humanities have been fending off attacks from everyone from policymakers to comedians.

Only eight percent of students now major in humanities disciplines, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, down from a peak of more than 17 percent in 1967. Fewer of last year’s freshmen said they went to college “to learn about things that interest me” than to get a better job, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reports. And governors in Florida, Wisconsin, and North Carolina have questioned whether taxpayers should continue to underwrite humanities departments, while some businesses will no longer pay their employees’ tuition for programs that do not provide specific vocational skills.

The top jobs for humanities and social-science majors include teaching, law, social work, sales, marketing, finance, and retail.About 40 percent of the nation’s 9.6 million humanities bachelor’s degree holders go on to get graduate or professional degrees, increasing their median annual incomes by $19,550—still a smaller premium than is earned by anyone else with graduate degrees, except professionals and preprofessionals—the AAC&U report says.

While 40 percent of humanities and social-sciences graduates work in areas outside their fields of study, they also have disproportionally significant roles in social-services professions such as social work and counseling.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus is a higher education editor at the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.