I grow discouraged.
So here’s Liz Dwyer, education editor and blogger at Good.is, asserting that “Recent college grads still looking for full-time employment—or faced with the prospect of moving back home to live with mom and dad—are probably cursing their English and philosophy degrees.”
Totally. I mean, those fruity humanities degrees are probably worthless, right?
No! It’s not true! It’s just not true. If you actually bother to check the facts– if you aren’t just intuiting the world but instead check the facts– you’ll find that English and philosophy majors, like most people with bachelors degrees, are doing quite well. They are employed at far higher rates than the general public and earn far more than the general public. Dissatisfied grads are entitled to curse the world for failing to provide them everything they dreamed, but the facts tell us that as a group they are, in any reasonable context, in good shape.
What little evidence Dwyer has comes from Payscale.com. Dwyer herself points out some of the problems with Payscale, but leaves out the biggie, which is that Payscale does not publish sample size. (If someone is giving you statistics but is keeping the sample size private, run away.) They don’t include people with advanced degrees, which severely discriminates against certain majors. But even if we take Payscale’s own numbers at face value, mid-career English majors make $67,500 a year. Philosophy majors make $72,900 a year. The median household income in this country is $50,221.
Part of the problem with people’s understanding of employment and compensation is that people who went to college tend to assume everybody went to college. Less than 28% of Americans above 25 has a college degree. If you’re working for a (generally quite good, I think) publication like Good and you are surrounded all the time by other college graduates, you might look around you and say, pretty much everybody has a college degree, and boy, there’s so much unemployment. But the truth is, as much as we need a better job market across the board, the unemployment rate for college graduates is dramatically lower for people with a college degree– 5.4% for those with only BAs, 10.3% for those without.
The objective reality is that most English and philosophy majors are fine. Sure, there are plenty of outliers in that group who are looking for jobs, but averages and medians have to be our interest if we are considering public problems. And what we find when we check the reality of the medians and averages is that worrying about college graduates of any major is to misplace our priorities. That’s what empiricism tells us. If Dwyer has tears to shed, she should shed them for the large majority of Americans who don’t have a bachelors degree.
I like Good a lot, most of the time, and I read Dwyer’s blog daily. But her job is to produce journalism about education. She has a responsibility to get it right. There’s no indication that she did anything for this post beyond what fifteen minutes of Googling would tell you. The post fits the typical, intuitive but entirely wrong narrative that college educated people often assume, that there’s this dramatic reduction in the employability of less “practical” majors. Paralegal and law studies strike me as an entirely practical major, but if Payscale’s numbers are accurate, they do far, far worse than English and philosophy majors. (Of course, this also points to the absurdity of exempting those with advanced degrees, such as law degrees, from your sample.)
I don’t want to pick on Dwyer. But her readers are less informed than they were before she posted that, and it’s likely that the record will never be corrected in that space. (Does she care? Do her editors?) And it’s part and parcel with what strikes me as the number one biggest problem in blogging, the most glaring and consistent issue I have: bloggers mistaking their suppositions and deductions for the truth. Just because things make deductive or intuitive sense doesn’t mean that the are true. Understanding reality requires checking reality. There was a time when doing that was understood as what professional journalists do.
There’s just no accountability on the blogosphere, I’ve decided. If it doesn’t come from the individual bloggers, it just doesn’t exist. If you’ll excuse me, I need a beer.
Update: I wrote that those without BAs have an unemployment rate of 10.3%. That wording suggests I’m including those without high school diplomas, but such a figure would be far higher. I should have written that 10.3% is the rate for those with only a high school diploma.