Research has shown that college graduates of color often earn significantly less than their white counterparts in high-wage science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions. But that’s not the case for students graduating with degrees in the humanities, according to a large study from the University of Texas (UT) on students’ long-term earnings. Noting that humanities grads go on to pursue a huge array of career paths, the Washington Monthly recently took a closer look, highlighting multiple characteristics of those disciplines that could be replicated elsewhere to help close racial earnings gaps.
UT study finds wage parity among humanities grads
Hoping to better understand the earnings trajectory of students from different backgrounds and college majors, UT researchers analyzed university records from 550,000 students, as well as wage data spanning 15 years. Echoing prior studies, the analysis revealed large racial wage gaps in certain fields, including computer science, business, and engineering. The disparities began at graduation and grew from there: 15 years out, white students in careers related to computers, statistics, and mathematics earned a median of $112,000, while Black and Latinx students earned a median of $83,500 and $68,200, respectively.
However, the median earnings for students who majored in the disciplines that make up the humanities—including majors such as English, history, art history, foreign language, philosophy, and theology—was roughly the same, at nearly $30,000 right after graduation and around $60,000 15 years later.
Similar patterns were seen among graduates who had majored in education and health-related fields, but Washington Monthly says the humanities findings are “perhaps the most surprising,” given that “unlike education and health majors, who tend to cluster in professions with more transparent pay scales that support wage parity, humanities grads work everywhere.”
How do the humanities set the stage for more equitable pay?
Hoping to find lessons from the humanities that could help institutions and instructors close racial earnings gaps more broadly, the Washington Monthly identifies three main factors.
First, without weeder classes, humanities majors face fewer deterrents early in their college careers, allowing them to build confidence. Many STEM majors are required to take courses in their first year designed specifically to limit the number of students who go on to pursue demanding majors. Especially among students who attended under-resourced high schools, the resulting stress or poor performance can limit their course trajectory or dissuade them from seeking out future opportunities with highly selective employers.
Second, the smaller class sizes and open-ended assignments that are prevalent across humanities curricula create opportunities for students to develop mentorship relationships with their instructors. Compared with students majoring in other subjects, students in the humanities are much more likely to report having at least one professor who mentored them during their undergraduate studies.
Those connections are especially crucial for students of color and those who are the first in their families to attend college, experts say, noting that mentors can provide not only professional advice and letters of recommendation but also social capital, encouragement, and additional research opportunities. “Data do show that personally connecting with a caring adult is really important to students’ outcomes,” Kathryn Peltier Campbell, a postsecondary specialist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told Washington Monthly.
Finally, students majoring in humanities fields often avoid the inequities “baked in” to the competitive recruiting processes of large consulting firms and technology companies. For instance, some employers have a minimum GPA for consideration, effectively blocking any student who may have struggled their first year at college, having come from an under-resourced K-12 education. That stratification can have lifelong financial implications.
Without access to those structured recruitment opportunities, humanities grads may initially find their job hunt “dreary and discouraging,” but researchers say that the experience can nurture students’ resilience and tap into the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills developed in humanities classrooms.
Their humanities training sets them up to “capitalize on new opportunities in the workforce that students trained in narrower disciplines might not recognize or pursue.” In addition, Washington Monthly writes, “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.”
Translating these lessons to broader improvements
Recognizing these strengths and their long-term implications could help drive campus-wide improvements, experts say. For instance, the humanities approach to mentoring and advising could help inspire more effective programs for minority and first-generation students studying STEM fields. Universities also could rethink weed-out classes and thoroughly examine recruiting processes to understand which elements could perpetuate inequities.
“For a long time, we’ve looked at programs that help people transition into college,” Laura Perna, the vice provost for faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “Now we’re seeing more attention to programs specifically designed for first-generation, low-income students as they transition out of college.”