Why you should think twice about majoring in women’s studies and theatre arts

It’s easy for young students to be dazzled when they hear that going to college will earn them an extra $1 million in their lifetime. Or when they see headlines touting high-paying majors and new graduates’ success stories.

But coupled with the advice to follow your passion, those cheery inducements lead many students to make poor decisions about going to college and picking their major.

It’s true that majoring in engineering and computer science can deliver the big bucks. But for many students who major in the arts and humanities, recouping their investments in higher education will take many years—even decades—if they are recouped at all.

North Carolina’s new NC Tower website reports education and workforce data from the North Carolina Department of Commerce. A quick look at some arts and humanities majors sheds light on the financial fate of UNC system graduates who remain in North Carolina to live and work.

The mean salary for all 2007-08 graduates with bachelor’s degrees was $37,318 after five years of work—not bad, especially considering that they graduated into a recession. The mean for all associate’s degrees graduates after five years was $32,431.  (Remember that the median household income in North Carolina was just $46,450 in 2013.)

But the picture for many arts and humanities graduates isn’t as rosy. Following one’s passion might pay off in job satisfaction, but it rarely pays off in financial terms. After five years of work, 2007-08 graduates in these fields make less than $30,000 per year, as the graph below indicates.

If a student wants to follow his passion into studying drama, music, African-American Studies, art history, women’s studies, or another of the majors that typically lead to low-paying jobs, that is fine, but prudence would counsel against spending and borrowing much to earn those degrees.

(Editor’s note: The Pope Center welcomes the transparency provided by this new website, NCTower.com. Readers should note, however, that the initial information on the site presents the rosy side of higher education in the state—the university majors that lead to the highest incomes, the associate’s degrees that lead to the highest incomes, and the most popular majors. The less optimistic information must be sought, as we have done.)