The American Historian

Money Talks

Nancy F. Cott

Money Talks

A few months ago when I was anticipating writing this first column as president of the OAH, I read a disturbing article in the business section of the New York Times, “A Rising Call to Foster STEM Fields, and Decrease Liberal Arts Funding,” by Patricia Cohen. Her “hook” was a remark of Kentucky governor Matt Bevin in his January 2016 state-of-the union address, that his spending plan for education would incentivize colleges and universities to grant degrees to electrical engineers and not to French literature majors. (Bevin’s proposal was first reported by the Associated Press in US News & World Report, Jan. 29, 2016.) Bevin said baldly that if public funds were going to higher education, they should be spent to produce the kinds of degree-holders that employers were looking to hire. Cohen’s article helpfully discussed the criticisms as well as support Bevin’s move had received in Kentucky and elsewhere.

Bevin, a Republican, was working in the interests of business supporters and addressing an apparent workforce dearth in Kentucky in stressing STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). The more frequently heard conversation championing STEM fields above the humanities focuses on the projected earnings of students after graduation. These two approaches differ but they echo and reinforce one another, pursuing a similar aim and coming to the same conclusion from different angles. They converge in seeing higher education as a servant of the economy and measuring higher education’s value in strictly monetary terms.

A particularly striking example of measuring education’s value solely in monetary terms is a report produced in 2015 by The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. “The Economic Value of College Majors,” by Anthony Carnevale and others, based on data from the U.S. census and the American Community Survey, seems—as it appears on the web—to dissuade college students from making a choice based on anything but monetary results. The number one “highlight” of the online Executive Summary of this report is a graphic announcing that “NOT ALL BACHELOR’S DEGREES ARE CREATED EQUAL” and displaying brightly-colored piles of money, each labeled for a group of majors. The STEM pile is $43,000 high, the “health” stack $41,000, “business” is $37, 000, and the stack of bills representing “humanities and liberal arts” is the shortest at $29,000. The text next to the stacks of bills says “at the entry level, health majors earn $41,000 annually while humanities and liberal arts majors earn $29,000.” (If you wonder, as I did, how “health” achieved its place, given that extremely low-paid positions predominate among jobs newly created in the health field, you will discover that this heading includes nursing and several other medical professions, as well as pharmacy and pharmaceuticals.) Not surprisingly, the report’s overall findings were that the highest-paid majors were in the STEM fields, and the lowest-earning majors were in early childhood education, human services, and community organization.

Of course, public denigration of the humanities (and I include history there) as preparation for success in today’s economic world has been ongoing for years now—often answered, thankfully, by eloquent defenses of the humanities as preparation for a worthwhile life and for needed contributions to society and gains beyond those strictly economic. But supporters of the humanities and other interested parties have also tried to answer the assault in its own terms. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) conducts a valuable project called Humanities Indicators to track data at a far more fine-grained and thus more thought-provoking level than the gross reporting I have noted in the Georgetown Center’s summary. (The Georgetown Center’s report does far more than I have noted, reporting earnings over time for majors divided into fifteen groups and the 137 subgroups that make up the fifteen.) Among the comparative analyses of the relation between majors and earnings developed in Humanities Indicators, earnings at various stages of the life cycle are described. The study also includes comparative analyses of those gaining advanced degrees (in any field) after earning a bachelor’s degree in a humanities field at the undergraduate level.

The upshot on earnings alone is quite simple: engineering ‘wins’ at every life stage and humanities fields lag behind. In fact, humanities degree-holders at the undergraduate level lag behind almost all other degree-holders, though the contrast with engineering is the most arresting. In the Humanities Indicators of the AAAS, the difference between the median earnings of engineering bachelor-degree-holders (not all STEM fields) and those of humanities degree-holders is compelling. For individuals starting out, between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, the difference is obvious: median annual earnings of humanities bachelor-degree-holders amount to $40,000, while the figure for those with undergraduate engineering degrees is $66,000. The difference balloons with age and experience: for those between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-four, humanities majors earn a median income of $77,000 while engineers earn $111,000. The litany continues if one looks at the earnings experience of those undergraduate degree-holders who go on to an advanced degree, where additional scientific fields besides engineering outdistance the earnings of humanities undergraduates. So what!, you might say. Not everyone wants to be or is capable of becoming an engineer. I myself would not want to see an educated world populated by engineers only. But these data—constricted though they are in representing what the choice of undergraduate major means to one’s life—are enormously influential for undergraduate students and their parents.

Arguments based on assessing potential earnings of educated graduates are familiar. Cohen’s New York Times article, by highlighting Governor Matt Bevin’s comment, alerted me to the convergent state-level funding emphasis on public education as a servant to the economy, which also stresses engineering and other STEM fields in the interests of employers or economic development. State governments have reason to direct their postsecondary funding (what funding there is!) to purposes benefiting the community at large. That is surely appropriate. But how are those purposes to be defined and then measured? “Performance-based standards” are an increasing norm in states’ approach to the matter, most often applied to two-year colleges and associates’ degrees, but increasingly applied to four-year colleges and bachelors’ degrees. On the website of the National Association of State Legislatures, one sees a short description of these standards where they exist in thirty-two states (and how far that number corresponds, or does not, to the thirty-three states where Republicans dominate state legislatures, I have not checked:

These standards initially came in to serve laudable reasons—to make sure that the institutions gaining public funds were graduating their students, were providing adequate numbers of creditable courses, were making application and persistence for the poorest students possible, and so on. Now, however, more states are giving special credit to institutions that graduate more students in STEM fields. This has become a “metric” that state legislatures use to award public funding and is presumably what Matt Bevin is headed toward. I noticed that Hawaii, Minnesota, Nevada, Texas, Ohio, Kansas, and Wisconsin are already using this metric. Only STEM fields gain this special validation—no other. Some states justify this specifically in terms of the economy. Kansas, for instance, stipulates that performance standards include degrees that are “meeting the needs of the Kansas economy.” Wisconsin stipulates in unusual detail its desire to “align the funding formula with state economic and workforce needs” and says that the “placement rate of students in jobs related to students’ program of study” will count toward an institution’s performance, including the “number of degrees and certificates awarded in high-demand fields” and “number of programs or courses with industry-validated curricula.”

The decline in number of history majors thus stems from more than students’ supposed “practicality” in choosing majors that seems to lead more directly to career earnings. States are weighing in. State funding not only literally produces what courses will be offered and credited, but also—insofar as the public is aware of state priorities—state action affects how individuals think about their conduct of life and their choices. This is an additional way that money talks.


Nancy F. Cott is the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard University.  Her writings range widely over questions concerning women, gender, marriage, feminism, and citizenship in the United States, and include The Bonds of Womanhood: 'Woman's Sphere' in New England, 1780-1835 (1977); The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987); and Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2000).  Her interests also include the history of social movements, political culture, and law. Her current project concerns Americans who came of age in the 1920s and shaped their lives internationally.