The Secret Lives of English Majors

Unlike their STEM peers, Black and white humanities graduates earn about the same. How did that happen?

For decades, optimistic liberals believed that by sending more students of color to college, the United States could dismantle systemic racial income disparities. But in recent years, research has made it abundantly clear that’s simply not the case. Even when minority students from impoverished backgrounds earn college diplomas, they make substantially less than their white peers. A study by the Economic Policy Institute, for example, found that Black college graduates earned 22.5 percent less than their white counterparts in 2019, up from 19.2 percent in 2007 and 17.2 percent in 2000. Other researchers have found similarly large gaps, even among the graduates of top-tier universities.

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Those entry-level inequities can snowball over time. In a groundbreaking study of students’ long-term earnings, the University of Texas system found that white graduates in computers, statistics, and mathematics earned a median entry-level wage of $53,100, compared with a median of $50,000 for Black graduates and $45,000 for Latinos. Fifteen years after graduation, the salary gaps had increased dramatically: White students were making a median of $112,000, compared with $83,500 for Black students and $68,200 for Latinos. Graduates in engineering and business saw similar salary inequities. 

But when officials at UT dug into their data set, which combined university records of almost 550,000 students who attended nine UT system institutions from 2002 through 2018 with 15 years of wage data from the Texas Workforce Commission, they unearthed some unexpected findings. As they sliced the data by student major, gender, race, and family income, they found that Black, brown, and female alums are often massively underpaid compared with their white male peers in many high-wage career paths, such as computer science, engineering, and business. But they also found that students of color who majored in education, health, and the humanities tended to earn roughly the same amount as these disciplines’ white graduates, both right after graduation and 15 years out.

The humanities data is perhaps the most surprising. Unlike education and health majors, who tend to cluster in professions with more transparent pay scales that support wage parity, humanities grads work everywhere. That’s in part because “humanities” encompasses a long list of majors, from American studies, anthropology, Asian cultures and languages, classical studies, and English through geography, history, linguistics, philosophy, rhetoric, and women’s and gender studies. UT’s data set is robust, including 37,266 humanities graduates, of whom 4,231 identify as Black and 28,814 identify as Hispanic. In the first year after graduation, the median incomes of all humanities students regardless of race and gender clustered just below $30,000; that relative wage parity remained durable 15 years after commencement, when white graduates earned a median wage of $60,000 and Black and Latino graduates made a median wage of $58,000.

How is it that UT humanities majors overcome the racial earnings gap? There’s no one clear answer. But there seem to be multiple possible explanations that could help students, instructors, institutions, and employers everywhere—and across all disciplines—reduce pay discrimination. 

To understand what’s going right in the humanities, it makes sense to start at the outset of students’ college careers. One of the key differences between humanities students and their counterparts in science, technology, and math shows up in the first year of college. That’s when many STEM, business, and pre-med students are herded through notorious “dropout” or “weeder” classes—big, required courses with extremely challenging curricula that are purposely designed to cull any students deemed less prepared to withstand the rigors of their chosen majors. “The failure rate, especially for minorities who come into the sciences, is pretty high,” says the physicist Walter Massey, president emeritus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and of Morehouse College, and the former head of the National Science Foundation. “Within the humanities, there’s not that sort of weeding out.” 

By itself, that doesn’t explain the earnings gap, which measures the incomes of students who do make it through weeder courses and graduate with degrees in high-wage fields. But it turns out that the stresses of these courses can damage the career prospects of students who stick it out, especially if they arrived at college from underperforming high schools (as many students of color do). “In their first year, they need to make this really hard choice—to try to simultaneously catch up in calculus and take Computer Science 101 or take remedial calc, which delays graduation by an entire year,” says April Christina Curley, the engagement and partnerships manager at the Last Mile Education Fund. She says students who struggle with weeder classes may be denied access to high-level courses in specialized topics that are prized by leading employers, or they may self-select into less rigorous elective classes. Their initial difficulties also can undermine their self-esteem and dissuade them from applying for jobs with the most highly selective employers. 

By contrast, humanities students are generally welcomed with 100-level classes that, while not always gentle, have not been intentionally designed to trim the fat from their already lean departmental enrollments. So humanities students get the chance to find their feet academically before they encounter demanding upper-level courses in world literature or rigorous seminars on modern history. These experiences build confidence that comes across later in job interviews and in the workplace. 

Experts say that humanities classes are also usually smaller, especially in upper levels, than in other disciplines. This gives students a chance to get to know their professors, and vice versa. The open-ended nature of humanities assignments also provides students with an opportunity to express their own ideas in ways that are more likely to catch an instructor’s attention than, say, a score of 96 percent on an advanced calculus exam. As a result, humanities students are significantly more likely to cite at least one professor who served as a mentor during their undergraduate years than are students in other disciplines. These types of mentoring relationships can be deeply beneficial for all students, but especially for minority students, who may be struggling academically or who feel out of place. (Black students, for example, are less likely to have college-educated parents who can help them navigate the world of higher education.)

“I can speak to that in my own experience,” says Zainab Okolo, a strategy officer at Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based private foundation focused on expanding post-secondary educational opportunities. “A lot of what made me successful as an undergraduate was finding faculty who took the time to really learn my passion and challenge me with additional research opportunities and writing opportunities,” she says. “As I’ve gone further in the field of higher ed, and higher ed inequity, I’ve realized just how lucky I was to have that.” 

Faculty mentoring relationships don’t just provide emotional and intellectual benefits. An engaged faculty mentor can also provide a meaningful, personalized recommendation for jobs or grad school, along with informal (but crucial) social capital, such as tips on navigating job interviews and writing thank-you notes to recruiters. 

The differing experiences of humanities students and their STEM and business peers become extremely visible during senior year, when giant tech companies and consulting firms hold highly competitive recruiting events. Many of these have baked-in inequities. For example, high-profile employers may refuse to grant interviews to students who don’t meet a minimum GPA cutoff—so it doesn’t matter if your 3.46 GPA reflects your Herculean freshman-year struggle to catch up after coming to college unprepared. This disadvantages anyone who comes from an under-resourced school district, which means it works against students of color.

Ruthe Farmer, founder and CEO of the Last Mile Education Fund, says recruiters also may restrict interviews to students who are active in extracurricular groups limited to specific majors (such as entrepreneurship clubs or private equity clubs for business majors) or who have taken certain highly specialized, highly regarded courses. Students who aren’t part of the departmental “in crowd” may not know that top-paying companies’ recruiters favor a specific professor’s section of computer systems architecture, for example. As a result, Black, brown, and female students in those majors may miss out on the most lucrative entry-level jobs, with financial repercussions for the rest of their careers.

Most humanities grads do not have access to these highly organized, highly stratified recruitment opportunities. Instead, they have to lace up their boots, head off to campus, and hustle to find those first entry-level jobs. While that initial job hunt can be dreary and discouraging, Okolo and other researchers say the skills built through those experiences can help Black and Latino students in these fields keep pace with their white counterparts over the course of their careers. 

Although it’s hard to quantify, humanities grads’ mid-career salaries also may reflect their willingness to look for greener pastures when they hit a career dead end—or a glass ceiling. Humanities classes require students to read broadly, think deeply, and write often—and, frequently, to stand up and tell their classmates what they’ve read and written, and then think on their feet in response to questions and criticisms. These classroom experiences can breed resilience, creativity, and interdisciplinary thinking, which enable graduates to capitalize on new opportunities in the workforce that students trained in narrower disciplines might not recognize or pursue.

It is also possible that humanities grads wind up working for employers that are more diverse or more liberal, and therefore less likely to discriminate. A study published last year by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that liberal arts majors are less inclined toward authoritarianism than business or STEM majors. Those students’ antipathy toward strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedoms may translate into a preference for bosses who treat them and their coworkers fairly. It makes intuitive sense: Individuals whose sense of justice has been honored and honed throughout four years of thoughtful education are less likely to sit quiet when they, or their colleagues, are expected to accept lower wages and diminished prospects because of race or gender.

So what are the equity lessons that universities can—and should—learn from their own humanities departments?

Curley and others say one good first step might be to dump “weeder” classes, or at least create some workarounds so students who don’t make it through the gate the first time get a fair chance (including tutoring and other supports) to try again. These reforms should include retraining instructors to focus on finding ways to retain students, instead of just warning entering freshmen, “Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you won’t be here next semester.”

More broadly, departments across campus should look at humanities models to help them create better mentoring and advising programs for minority and first-generation students in STEM and other high-salary disciplines. “Data do show that personally connecting with a caring adult is really important to students’ outcomes,” says Kathryn Peltier Campbell, a senior editor/writer and postsecondary specialist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. In developing expanded advising programs, those other departments need to make sure that minority students have access to mentors who look like them and understand their needs. This might be another place where the humanities are out ahead. “We still need to make much more progress in diversifying the nation’s faculty, but I would bet we have more diversity among advisers on all levels in the humanities,” says Laura Perna, the vice provost for faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of Penn’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.

To help minority students in business and tech develop the kinds of soft skills that can help set humanities grads apart, universities should create comprehensive job search preparation programs designed specifically for minority students in high-disparity disciplines. These programs should include intensive, individualized guidance in writing cover (and thank-you) letters and creating, rehearsing, and re-rehearsing their elevator speeches. Programs also should include repeated and realistic mock job interviews, to make sure they’re ready to handle the subtexts of tricky questions. “For a long time, we’ve looked at programs that help people transition into college,” Perna notes. “Now we’re seeing more attention to programs specifically designed for first-generation, low-income students as they transition out of college.” 

On a higher level, universities need to do a thorough review of on-campus recruiting practices to identify the many places where inequality is being baked into the process. That will require tracking the demographics of the students who are invited to participate in highly competitive recruiting events: Are GPA cutoffs and employer requirements for “golden ticket” courses disproportionately favoring white males? It’s also important to take a hard look at the student societies and extracurricular activities that employers like most. There’s nothing “color-blind” about a recruitment process open to all members of the engineering honor society if all the members are either white or Asian. 

Universities can remove another major driver of inequity by requiring on-campus recruiters to disclose starting salary ranges, signing bonuses, and benefit packages. In contrast with the relative wage transparency of many education and health care jobs, STEM and business employers generally keep details of salary packages confidential. Minority students who are excluded from the informal knowledge loop may have an especially difficult time figuring out what would be considered fair pay. When students have access to reality-based salary data, they’re much better equipped to negotiate their starting salaries, putting them on a path to greater wage fairness throughout their careers. 

But what we most need to tackle this problem is more research into the drivers of disparities—and equities—across university disciplines. The University of Texas database, while large, important, and impressive, is only a beginning. Most colleges still do not have this type of information—by race, by gender, by program—according to Jen Engle, director of the Gates Foundation’s Data in the United States Program. (The Washington Monthly receives funding from both the Gates and Lumina Foundations.) More research like UT’s is desperately needed to give a fuller picture, both of persistent inequities and the as-yet-unrecognized solutions that might bring fairness to post-college wages, for everyone.  

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Elizabeth Austin

Elizabeth Austin is a writer and strategic communications consultant in Oak Park, Illinois.