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The Earnings Potential of History Majors: New Studies Detail the Gender Gap, Long-Term Prospects, and the Impact of Graduate Degrees

Allen Mikaelian, December 2014

The release of new data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) has prompted fresh analyses of a question often asked of the AHA: What are the career outcomes of history majors?

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project recently used the American Community Survey data to explore how the choice of discipline affects the earnings of full-time workers, and how much impact an advanced degree has on those earnings (bit.ly/1tGsiPS and bit.ly/10FdCpv). Those with US history bachelor’s degrees (and no advanced degree) had slightly higher salaries than the median for all fields, and they had the highest salary of all holders of degrees in the humanities fields tracked by the project. But women who held history degrees lagged the furthest behind their counterparts.

With a median annual salary of $51,000, workers with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities and no advanced degree were below the median annual salary of $56,000 calculated for all fields. Full-time workers who held a terminal bachelor’s degree in US history boasted a median annual salary of $62,000, but those who claimed the less-specific major of “history” (not specifying the US) and had no advanced degree were below the median for all fields, with an annual salary of $52,000 (fig. 1).

Figure 1. Median Annual Earnings, 2012

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US history majors had slightly higher median salaries than the median for all bachelor’s degrees. But this was not the case when we consider women’s earnings separately. This chart includes only those with a terminal bachelor’s degree who are full-time workers. Source: Humanities Indicators
(bit.ly/1tGsiPS)

The Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project analyzed the ACS data with an eye toward both median annual earnings over the course of a career and lifetime earnings. Their interactive charts (hamiltonproject.org/earnings_by_major) show history majors slightly below the median for all majors for most of their careers. Likely this is due to the fact that the project does not separate US history from the more generic “history” category. History majors’ earnings seem to peak about 22 years into their careers, while the peak for all majors happens about five years later. There is a wide gap of about $10,000 between the median annual salary for history majors and the median for all majors at about 25 years into their careers.

Figure 2. Median Annual Earnings Over Career: Advanced Degree Holders

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When we include those with graduate degrees, the median annual earnings of history majors rise above the median for all majors at 13 years into a career. This chart includes full-time workers only and is based on ACS data from 2011–12. Source: The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution (bit.ly/10FnaAD)

Include graduate degrees in this comparison, however, and history graduates are above the median for all disciplines, with peak annual earnings of $86,000 at about 34 years into their careers. And the Humanities Indicators’ analysis found that the benefits of an advanced degree were especially noticeable for the generalized “history” category: an advanced degree gave these workers a 53 percent earnings boost—a larger lift than any discipline other than “area, ethnic, and civilization studies.”

The Humanities Indicators also found, however, a wide disparity between the outcomes for men and women, and this was especially true for history majors without an advanced degree. Women who specified US history faced a 39 percent earnings gap, and women holding an general history degree had a 28 percent gap. The earnings gap for all humanities disciplines was 21 percent. This is not encouraging news for those concerned about the disproportionately low participation of women in the history major.

These two recent reports add to previous studies that also used the American Community Survey, like the report Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment, and Earnings from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The 2013 release, which used ACS data from 2010–11, found that recent history graduates were facing a 9.5 percent unemployment rate. This was higher than foreign-language majors (8.1 percent) but not has high as anthropology majors (12.6 percent). The report is especially useful, however, in the way it distinguished early-career unemployment from the unemployment rates faced by experienced workers and graduate degree holders. In those years of generally high unemployment, history had one of the lower unemployment rates (5.8 percent) among humanities disciplines when it came to experienced college graduates, and there was an even lower unemployment rate (3.7 percent) among graduate degree holders.

In short, the material benefits of a history degree seem to come later in life, and graduate degrees are especially helpful. While history has recently appeared on lists of low-paying majors, usually based on crowdsourced information, and while these lists have sometimes gone viral, analyses based on the broad and authoritative American Community Survey paint a more complete and hopeful picture. While no one should expect to be catapulted into wealth because of a degree in history, neither is the degree a certain path to penury and underemployment.

Allen Mikaelian is the editor of Perspectives on History.


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