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Liberal arts have return on investment too


The start of the state budget allocation season is rounding the corner, and the outcomes of what college graduates do after their degree in state is increasingly becoming more important to state Legislature.

With this in mind, perhaps the STEM-infatuated legistlative body in Tallahassee should pay close attention to a report released Wednesday by the Association of American Colleges and Universities that found that liberal arts majors actually make it out of school quite hale and hearty.

In recent years, the state has requested several measures of increased accountability from universities, including the earnings of post-graduates, tying in the amount of funding provided to universities, and in turn that which they provide to departments and programs, to the investment they believe is coming back to the state.

The Florida Board of Governors’ Strategic Plan calls for increasing the number of STEM graduates in the state by more than 260 percent by 2025. At USF, 11 of the 17 new degree programs created during the last year were in STEM-related fields, leaving many to question where the place for liberal arts and the humanities will be in the future of higher education in the state.

While liberal arts and humanities majors are commonly thought of as less directly relevant to stimulating the economy — the governor even mocked the field of anthropology a few years ago — the report finds that while humanities and liberal arts majors initially start out earning less than their professional degree counterparts, this isn’t the case down the line. The average starting salary for humanities and social science majors after an undergraduate degree was $26,271 in 2010 and 2011, according to the report. However, at the peak age of their earning careers (between 56 and 60), they out-earned their professional degree counterparts by close to $2,000.

Additionally, the study found that liberal arts and humanities majors were more likely to pursue graduate school than their professional degree counterparts — an additional step of education that translates to about $19,550 in additional earnings.

While post-graduate earnings should hardly serve a measure of the efficacy of an education or even of career success, which cannot really be quantified with even the most precise metrics, this report challenges the notions that the push for funding STEM fields, indeed a valuable and stimulating part of the economy, is the only way to seek a return on investment in the economy.