Liberal Arts vs. STEM: a Modern Twist on the Tortoise and the Hare

The race is not always to the swift.

That’s the moral of the classic tale of the tortoise and the hare.

In the case of liberal arts majors vs STEM majors, the moral of the story is:

The race is not always to those who start with the highest salary.

A recent New York Times story by David Deming, the director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, notes that computer science and engineering majors between the ages of 23 and 25 who were working full time earned an average of $61,744 in 2017, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. This was 37 percent higher than the average starting salary of $45,032 earned by people who majored in history or the social sciences (which include economics, political science, and sociology).

However, by age 40, men majoring in computer science or engineering roughly doubled their starting salaries to an average of $124,458. Yet earnings growth was even faster in other majors, and some catch up completely. By age 40, the average salary of all male college graduates was $111,870, and social science and history majors earned $131,154 — an average that was lifted, in part, by high-paying jobs in management, business, and law.

The story was similar for women. Those with applied STEM majors earned nearly 50 percent more than social science and history majors at ages 23 to 25, but only 10 percent more by ages 38 to 40.

There are two reasons for such an outcome.

First, many of the latest technical skills that are in high demand today become obsolete when technology progresses. Skill obsolescence and increased competition from younger graduates work together to lower the earnings advantage for STEM degree-holders as they age.

Second, a liberal arts education fosters valuable “soft skills” like problem-solving, critical thinking and adaptability. Such skills are hard to quantify, and they don’t create clean pathways to high-paying first jobs. But they have long-run value in a wide variety of careers.

A traditional liberal arts curriculum includes subjects, like philosophy and literature, that seemingly have little relevance in the modern workplace. Yet many of the skills most desired by employers are also quite abstract.

According to a 2018 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the three attributes of college graduates that employers considered most important were written communication, problem-solving and the ability to work in a team. 

A liberal arts education has enormous value because it builds a set of foundational capacities, such as the three skills notes above, that will serve students well in a rapidly changing job market.

Like a broken record, I have been preaching this message for the past 30 years. Even though I teach in the business school, I am constantly trying to impress my students the value of their liberal arts classes. Many of them, if they had their choice, would take all of their 120 credits in the business school. Fortunately, our school requires our business students to take about half of their credits in the arts and sciences.

Otherwise, we would be a trade school. Now trade schools are a viable option for many students, but they serve a different purpose than a college does. Colleges are trying to develop students who are prepared to handle what life will throw at them for the next 40 years, not just the next four.

So for any high school or college students or their parents reading this, don’t simply dismiss the liberal arts because of the lower starting salaries.

That psychology major may start off like a tortoise, but by middle age, they’ve caught up to the hare that is the STEM major.

*image from Park Playhouse


4 thoughts on “Liberal Arts vs. STEM: a Modern Twist on the Tortoise and the Hare

  1. you raise a good point here, and lucky because I am not the most tech/business savvy person, and naturally am drawn to be the liberal artist that I am )


  2. Agree with all the points. I grew up reading Tortoise and the Hare and this story has pushed me forward a lot of time when I feel very down.


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