Liberal arts studies, in general, get a bad rap when it comes to career utility. But the rumors are only partly true. Yes, the median annual income for liberal arts majors is about 8% less than it is for all majors, according to Emsi, a labor-market research firm owned by Strada Education. And STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) are well represented among our rankings for best college majors for a lucrative career, which are based on demand and typical pay for workers with each degree.
But liberal arts majors are hardly destined for unending unemployment and empty bank accounts. In fact, their median income is more than a third greater than that of a worker with just a high school diploma, helping prove they are not such useless degrees after all. Indeed, plenty of employers highly value the skills learned from earning a liberal arts degrees, such as creative thinking, problem solving, critical analysis and communication. Even Shark Tank investor Mark Cuban told Bloomberg in 2017 that such skills will be increasingly prized in the job market. That’s because, he said, as automation and artificial intelligence continues to absorb more work, businesses will look to their human employees to take on more thoughtful responsibilities, as well as more high-skill tasks. “I personally think there’s going to be greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there are for programming majors and maybe even engineering,” he said.
To determine which majors typically come with the best hiring prospects and pay, we studied the data for 102 popular college majors. We looked for courses of study that tend to lead to fat paychecks—both right out of school and further along your career path. We also sought out majors that are in high demand based on recent online job postings as well as long-term growth expectations for related occupations. Plus, we factored in the percentage of workers with given degrees who feel their jobs have a positive impact on the world. Here is how all the liberal arts majors included in our analysis ranked, from best to worst.
Find details on data sources and our ranking methodology at the end of this story.
Best: American Studies
- Starting salary: $49,800 (Median for all majors: $45,400)
- Mid-career salary: $83,400 (Median for all majors: $78,300)
- American Studies majors are attractive to employers in a host of industries because of their proven ability to do in-depth research and perform critical analysis. Developing these skills helps prepare them for work in law, journalism, academics, government, museum curation, business, finance and other fields, as well as further education including law school.
Since this is an interdisciplinary major, you have some flexibility in what you focus on and which classes to take. Some typical courses for American Studies majors include American art, American popular culture, ethnicity in America, religion in America, the American wilderness and women in American society, according to The College Board. And given the current political climate, exploring the history of the nation and how we got here—and where we’re likely to head next—could prove particularly interesting and useful. Plus, 55% of former American Studies majors report that their current work feels meaningful and makes a positive impact on the world.
- Starting salary: $47,100
- Mid-career salary: $85,400
Sure, the study of ancient Greek and Roman culture might not seem exactly applicable in the modern job market, but the level of critical thinking and research skills required to do it is highly marketable in a wide range of industries. For example, former classics majors from Georgetown University have gone on to careers in publishing, government, museums, finance and education, to name just a few fields, according to the school’s career education center. Many also continue their schooling and pursue graduate degrees in a variety of subjects, including ancient history and classical archaeology, as well as law and medicine, for which they tend to have high admissions rates.
- Bonus: More than half of workers (51%) who hold a bachelor’s in classics report high levels of meaning in their careers.
- Starting salary: $48,200
- Mid-career salary: $86,000
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates in Plato’s “The Apology.” And conversely, it turns out that the study of examining life can be worth quite a bit in earnings potential. Despite what you might think, philosophy majors tend to pull in above-average incomes throughout their careers.
And why not? Philosophy literally means “love of wisdom,” and these majors learn to think creatively, solve problems and consider the big picture when making decisions—abilities highly valued across industries and in a wide variety of occupations. Indeed, the likes of venture capitalist Peter Thiel, former HP CEO (and presidential nominee) Carly Fiorina and former FDIC chair Sheila Bair all majored in philosophy. Hedge-fund manager Bill Miller waited until grad school to get serious about the subject, and though he didn’t complete his PhD (never finishing his dissertation), he greatly values all he learned, even donating $75 million to the philosophy department of Johns Hopkins University last year. “I attribute much of my business success to the analytical training and habits of mind that were developed when I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins,” Miller told the Hub, the university’s online news center.
Mixed: Liberal Arts
- Starting salary: $42,000
- Mid-career salary: $73,900
- Annual online job postings: 2.1 million
- Rather than selecting a narrower area of liberal arts to study, declaring the general field as your major can get you a solid base of knowledge to build a variety of careers upon. Liberal arts majors typically take a broad range of classes, from biological concepts to fundamentals of economics to world religions. Such a schedule not only helps you explore all areas of knowledge, it also teaches you to understand and analyze each of them. And that kind of subject-matter adaptability proves useful for many future jobs, including but not limited to teachers, reporters and writers.
- Starting salary: $44,200
- Mid-career salary: $66,800
Another more general approach to liberal arts studies, a humanities major gives you a taste of multiple subject matters while training you to connect all of it together by identifying and examining common ideas and themes. Some classes you might choose for your schedule: development of western civilization, rhetoric of social and political movements, language and gender and mathematics and modern culture. Whatever specific courses you select, expect to work on your critical reasoning and effectively communicating your thoughts—skills that can help you get ahead in any career.
- Starting salary: $44,000
- Mid-career salary: $77,200
Studying the past can help prepare you for a future in a variety of fields. As a history major, you can hone your ability to suss out details—researching and reporting names, dates and the sequence of events—and connect those dots to form the big picture. Of course, these skills and knowledge could lead to work as an archivist, curator, historian, librarian or teacher. But they’re also attractive talents for operations research analysts, general managers and lawyers, to name a few potential career paths. In fact, history majors post high acceptance rates to law school, with about 85% of applicants getting admitted.
- Starting salary: $42,600
- Mid-career salary: $66,200
Understanding people and the ways they tend to interact with one another can prove useful in a great number of career fields (as well as in many aspects of life, in general). Sociology majors study the roles people play in society, both individually and in groups, examining what drives their behavior and what might be done to alter it.
- Curiosity in this subject lends itself to work in government or social services. But it can also lead to success in education, law and business, specifically in human resources, marketing, public relations and even management. To follow that route, consider minoring in business or another relevant field of study to supplement your sociology degree.
Mixed: English Literature
- Starting salary: $43,600
- Mid-career salary: $78,300
Being well read can never hurt. And that’s not all you get with a B.A. in English. The ability to consume volumes upon volumes of text in relatively short periods of time can be useful in any career that requires in-depth research. And the skills English majors learn to sharpen, namely critical analysis and written communication, are in high demand in a wide range of industries. Many English grads go on to work in education, law, business (notably, marketing and public relations), media and publishing.
Mixed: Social Science
- Starting salary: $42,400
- Mid-career salary: $63,600
Another broad strategy to education, social sciences allows students to explore a variety of disciplines. Some course offerings to consider for this major include anthropology, economics, geography, history, sociology and a host of other related classes, giving you a strong academic foundation to start a number of careers. Top jobs for social science majors include data scientist, portfolio manager, management consultant, financial analyst, economist and more, according to Payscale.
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Worst: Foreign Languages
- Starting salary: $40,900 to $47,000
- Mid-career salary: $70,100 to $88,300
While the ability to master a foreign language shows definite smarts, the demand for this specific skill is relatively low, which lends itself to below-average pay. Your prospects vary somewhat, depending on which language you focus on: For example, while Spanish majors typically earn a mid-career income of $70,100, German majors can expect to make a median $88,300 by mid career. But no language degree offers an abundance of opportunities.
If you can afford it, furthering your education to obtain an advanced degree in a foreign language will help you compete for the limited number of teaching jobs available at all grade levels including post secondary positions. It can also bump up your earnings potential. In fact, for all liberal-arts studies, earning an advanced degree pushes median income up by about 38.2%.
- Starting salary: $47,900
- Mid-career salary: $73,500
Unlike other liberal arts majors, the study of linguistics offers a narrow area of knowledge—and an equally narrow level of demand. The typical career path for a bachelor of linguistics would have you invest in even more education to earn a doctorate, which may increase your potential pay. But you’d likely go on to become a college professor, for which you’ll find a limited number of positions and great deal of competition.
Be flexible on location. If you’re hoping to land a coveted teaching gig, you have to go wherever the opportunities are, whether at a university in the U.S. or abroad.
Also try broadening your study scope. Other liberal arts majors, such as American Studies and Sociology, offers the chance to explore how language is influenced by and influences culture and society. But they also allow you to keep your career options open. You might also consider applying your interest in linguistics to the burgeoning tech field. After all, learning to code and develop software is just a study of computer languages—and can lead to a highly lucrative career. Indeed, app developer is at the top of our rankings for best jobs for the future.
Worst: Religious Studies
- Starting salary: $41,700
A true spiritual calling may come with significant rewards—just don't expect them to arrive in monetary form. Directors of religious education earn a median salary of about $38,979 a year, clergy members make $44,013 a year, and other religious workers earn just $29,141 annually.
- More surprising than the small paychecks: Only 50% of religion majors report feeling that their work leaves a positive impact on the world. The same share of culinary arts majors, humanities majors and French language majors say the same.
Training to become a religious leader does not require a pricey college degree—and presumably you’re not in it for the money anyway. So if you’re interested in this subject for other reasons, you might consider majoring in philosophy instead. This field still gives you the opportunity to delve into religious studies and also provides you with a degree that is in much higher demand. A hefty 2.1 million online job postings over the past year sought out candidates who had studied philosophy. And that demand results in higher pay potential: Philosophy majors report a median starting salary of $48,200 a year and mid-career salary of $86,000 a year. Plus, the critical thinking and extensive writing skills demanded by this major can be applied in many career fields.
Worst: Art History
- Starting salary: $42,900
- Mid-career salary: $66,300
A bachelor's degree in art history is no sure path to future employment. Among these degree holders, 4% are unemployed and 20.2% have dropped out of the workforce, according to the Hamilton Project. Those who have found work aren’t earning much. Museum technicians and conservators, for example, pull in a lean median salary of just $42,182 a year (less than the median $43,992 a year for all jobs). The latter occupation typically requires even more education, a master's in conservation or a related field.
The employment picture might soon improve for art buffs. Despite the low number of current online job postings for art history majors, the projected growth rate for related jobs is actually above average. For example, museum techs and conservators are expected to grow their ranks by 16.4% over the next decade—versus 9.7% growth for all occupations—which might help bump up their pay. You might also improve your prospects by investing in more education and getting a master’s, often needed in order to become an archivist or curator. The former earns a median salary of $54,288 a year and has a projected growth rate of 17.7%; the latter typically earns more than $56,389 a year and the field is expected to expand 18.2% by 2027. Archivists specialized with electronic records may do particularly well as more institutions are switching over to digital bookkeeping.
Our 2019 Ranking Methodology
For each of the 102 college majors, compensation research firm PayScale (opens in new tab) provided median annual salaries for entry-level workers (with five years or less of work experience) and mid-career employees (with at least 10 years of experience). PayScale also provided “high job meaning” scores, which indicate the percentage of workers with each college major who say their work makes the world a better place. Workforce research firm Burning Glass Technologies (opens in new tab) supplied the number of online job postings listed between the third quarter of 2017 and the second quarter of 2018 that were seeking applicants with each of the 102 college majors. Projected 10-year growth rates from 2017 to 2027 for related occupations came from Emsi (opens in new tab), a labor-market research firm owned by Strada Education. Emsi collects data from dozens of federal, state and private sources, including the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In finalizing our rankings, we combined some similar majors to avoid redundancy.
How We Define Liberal Arts
Using guidance from Emsi, we distinguished liberal arts subjects as those that help students establish a broad base of knowledge, as opposed to more career-oriented majors—such as business, engineering, health care and technology fields—that focus on developing distinct skills for particular job paths. We do not include arts or maths majors in this assessment of liberal arts majors.
Rapacon joined Kiplinger in October 2007 as a reporter with Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine and became an online editor for Kiplinger.com in June 2010. She previously served as editor of the "Starting Out" column, focusing on personal finance advice for people in their twenties and thirties.
Before joining Kiplinger, Rapacon worked as a senior research associate at b2b publishing house Judy Diamond Associates. She holds a B.A. degree in English from the George Washington University.
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