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The Power of a Humanities Degree

Five years out, people with humanities degrees are making equivalent money to people from a STEM discipline. The kinds of things that folks in the humanities and the arts develop are the very things that corporations want in their employees

Given the focus on science and technology, many wonder if there is a future for humanities degrees. Indeed, recent news and research articles lament the rapid decline of the humanities.  

According to The New Yorker, “During the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third. Humanities enrollment in the United States has declined overall by 17%.” 

But where some see gloom, others see a chance to pivot with bright spots in the future, or, at the very least, a way to adapt. 

Jim Doerner, Ph.D., recently appointed dean of the College for Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado, has been a faculty member at the university since 1994 and a champion of the value of a liberal arts education. He believes the core competencies learned in the humanities are more relevant than ever. 

“The knock against the humanities is that there’s not a clear job at the end,” Doerner said. “But what employers are looking for are the skillsets, the kind of competencies that folks in the humanities degrees are learning.  

“Five years out, people with humanities degrees are making equivalent money to people, say, from a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) discipline. The kinds of things that folks in the humanities and the arts develop are the very things that corporations want in their employees.” 

Those things are skills like the ability to communicate, being empathic, strong interpersonal skills, the ability to think critically and seeing the world more broadly.  

This is why, as a Geography professor and now administrator, Doerner supports opportunities for students to learn outside of the classroom. From field research to traveling abroad, to learning to fly drones – all of this helps students not only to see the real-world application of textbook and lecture-based instruction but to apply it.  

“It’s transformative. There’s definitely an ‘Aha!’ moment,” Doerner said. “They walk into the real world and start applying what they have learned.” 

Karen Barton, Ph.D., a nine-time U.S. Fullbright Scholar, has led students on research trips to Central America and Europe, and, most recently over spring break, to collect trash along the Mississippi River. As a Geography and Sustainability professor, she sees her students really come alive when they’re outside of the lecture hall. 

“When you teach a field course, you sometimes find that there are students who might not do as well in the physical classroom environment as others, but they absolutely thrive in the field. They have these skillsets and wonderful interpersonal skills that are extremely valuable,” Barton said. “I never would have known that if I hadn’t traveled with them to places like Peru, Iceland and Nepal. Those field opportunities provide an individual impact to students that maybe I can’t in the classroom. “ 

With the emphasis and focus in middle and high schools on STEM over the last decade, more and more students are gravitating toward those kind of degrees at the college level and  fewer  students are pursuing  degrees  in  the humanities,  such  as  history or English.  

According to the Hechinger Report, fewer than one in 10 college graduates obtained humanities degrees in 2020, down 25% since 2012. But notably, in 2023, data suggests that some schools are bucking that trend by making the skills attainable with a humanities degree more palatable to employers.  

Doerner said that it doesn’t have to be black and white; students can study   humanities and STEM.  

“It’s okay to deviate from that STEM track. There are these enrichments. Having a foreign language, for example, in a global economy is  a  very  valuable  added  benefit,”   Doerner said.  

The fact remains that starting with a humanities degree provides a solid foundation that can take you anywhere, as evidenced by the success of UNC graduates. Humanities graduates have gone on to start businesses, become filmmakers, producers, diplomats, public policy advocates, nonprofit and foundation leaders, human resources professionals and pursued many more unexpected career paths. Any career that can be imagined can take root in the humanities.  

Jonathan Martin, ’11, was planning to study business at UNC, but after taking business statistics and Accounting II, and not particularly liking them, he decided to pursue a communications degree. Now, he owns his own business as a filmmaker, Black Sock Productions Ltd.  

“I think the biggest thing I learned from having a communication degree is essentially what communication is —  getting a message from audience A to audience B, whether that's an interview, marketing or advertising. And that is exactly what I do in my business now. And it's kind of ironic because I started my own business after being like, ‘Oh, a business degree is not for me at all.’ But that's what I take from UNC a lot. And it doesn't matter what the project is, there's a message,” said Martin.  

Molly Burich ’05, senior director of Reimbursement and Health Policy at Otsuka Pharmaceutical Companies, learned the power of communications as well at UNC and has used it continuously throughout her career. She studied political science and has drawn on her communications and negotiation skills in her career in public policy, health advocacy and more.  

“I think my career has exceeded what I thought was possible, but my love of policy was sort of born and cultivated at UNC in the Political Science department,” she said. “I attribute it to talented professors who had a lot of good debates in class and presented a lot of different sides. I absolutely credit the UNC Political Science department for helping me find that passion and then really cultivating it.” 

This power to communicate, understand others’ points of view, convince others, or refine one’s own position, is something that Casey Goodman, ’10, has used throughout his career. As a political science graduate, Goodman thought he would have a career in politics. While Goodman’s career path would take a different track, leading him into business rather than politics, he used the fundamentals of the humanities to guide his way through business to a successful career as a regional manager at the multinational automotive and clean energy company Tesla 

“So much of your success today is dependent on how well you can navigate and interact with people and groups, whether at work, with peers or with customers,” Goodman said. “A strong liberal arts foundation gives you the insight to broaden your perspective by listening to other’s viewpoints, considering them critically, and refining your position based on unbiased factors.”  

Part of his college experience was participating in the Model Arab League, studying Chinese and studying abroad in China, all of which helped expand his horizons.  

Jamar Rahming ’06, the executive director of the Wilmington Public Library, in Delaware, was a history major at UNC, but that was only part of his UNC experience. 

Rahming credits UNC’s Africana Studies program and his former advisor, George Junne, Ph.D., for providing him a strong foundation and humanities education, along with tremendous support from the Ronald McNair Scholars Program, Marcus Garvey Cultural Center and Center for Human Enrichment (CHE). This cross-campus support system and strong education in the humanities provided a key ingredient to his career success after college. 

“The humanities teach you how to survive, how to cope and how to deal with hardships in life. Because when you engage [in] the humanities, you read all these wonderful stories about all these people who have survived these horrific things,” Rahming said. “You say to yourself, ‘Well, if they were able to do it,  I definitely can.’ You read the stories about Frederick Douglass and Maya Angelou and Paul Laurence Dunbar and say, ‘Wow, these people thrived, and  I  have  10 times  more  than  what they have.” 

Beyond anecdotes, the numbers of UNC humanities alumni is promising. Of the more than 130,000 living alumni nearly 20% are Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) graduates. The top industries for employment of HSS graduates are K-12 education, higher education and government administration. More than 19% of graduates are in management, operations or are executives.  

According to the Daily Bruin, the UCLA Student newspaper, the statistics showing a drop in humanities degrees don’t tell the full story. 

“The negative discussions surrounding humanities degrees often fail to consider the whole truth, and they disregard various skills students can obtain that prepare them for life and work after college. These skills are highly valuable, as they offer students multiple ways to look at the world and address major societal issues such as homelessness, racial and gender inequality, threats to sustainability and more,”

said Jocilynn Colombo in her op-ed 

According to the job website, Careers360, humanities degrees pave the way for lucrative careers in political science, international relations, research, psychology, writing and design. Even more so, the humanities and STEM can work in concert with one another: 

As the Humanities and Social Sciences draw the blueprint for humanity's future, STEM works to construct it. It would be pointless to create a skilled workforce that is devoid of creativity and culture. We live in a time when the arts and humanities are inextricably linked to STEM. Both fields are symbiotic, and with today's rapidly changing world, the boundaries are blurring, with disciplines like Cognitive Science emerging and making huge contributions to human progress. Careers360 

According to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, “over 4.5 million people employed in management, professional and related occupations had a bachelor’s degree in the humanities (Indicator III-14a). Approximately 1.1 million graduates from the field were employed in various education positions and over 900,000 humanities graduates worked as managers.” 

Then, of course, there is job satisfaction as well as other, harder to measure, qualities of a career. 

“There’s much satisfaction in the humanities, in building competencies, that are going to be rewarded,” Doerner said.  

Anecdotal articles suggesting that humanities graduates are poor or unhappy are abundant. But the opposite is true. 

According to a 2019 Gallup poll cited in a new report by the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, “90% of humanities graduates are happy with their lives, about the same as graduates of other fields." 

According to Steven Mitz, Ph.D., a professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin, in an op-ed for InsiderHigherEd, “Humanities departments need to create more work-related learning opportunities. The key lies in expanded experiential learning — in the form of internships, mentored research, practicums, studio courses, community-based and service learning, maker spaces, and participation in team-based problem-solving activities and project-based learning.” 

This is what Doerner and professors such as Barton, are championing at UNC.  

 –written by Christina Abel

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