The conventional wisdom these days has been that college graduates in science, technology, engineering, and math will land the best-paying jobs, leaving liberal arts graduates in philosophy and history at the bottom of the salary scale.

Liberal Arts Grads Winning

But a study by the Brookings Institution delivers some startling news: liberal arts majors can earn just as much, if not more, than technical-skill based majors. By comparing lifetime earnings among different disciplines, the study found that the top 10% of earners in computer science had amassed at least $3.2 million over their lifetime. That was less than the $3.46 million earned by philosophy majors and $3.75 million for history majors.

When looked at from the perspective of one’s entire career, it appears that liberal arts majors can actually end up with more overall lifetime earnings. Only at the start of one’s career does majoring in a more technically-skill based discipline appear more valuable. (To read more, see: Are U.S. Colleges Still A Good Investment?)

Start Low, End High

According to the Wall Street Journal, salary data provided by PayScale indicates that the typical English or sociology major with less than five years of professional experience makes only an average of $39,000 a year. In comparison, with a similar level of experience, finance majors tend to earn an average of $52,000; nursing graduates, $57,000; and computer science majors, $63,000.

This difference in earnings, however, tends to narrow as careers progress. By the time liberal arts majors reach the peak-earning years of 56-60 they tend to earn an average of $66,185, which is 3% more than many peers who have degrees in more technical fields.

Recent survey data reported by the Journal revealed that 68% of employers prefer hiring candidates with business or engineering backgrounds. However, the survey also indicates that in a ranking of traits that employers value most in their employees, technical skills came in 10th place while teamwork, writing, problem-solving and oral communication were among the top five. (To read more, see: Why Companies Like Grads With a Liberal Arts Degree.)

Teamwork Ranks High

Such skills are typically the traits that one develops throughout the course of a liberal arts degree, and yet employers still show a preference for technical skill in their practice of hiring new graduates.

This preference is likely at least partly due to the fact that technical skills are more demonstrable—one can either code in HTML or they can’t—whereas teamwork, critical thinking, and creative problem solving are softer skills that may not be immediately apparent. In fact, such skills may not become obvious until the employee has been trained to perform a specific job, after which they become extremely valuable, as they now know the technical aspects of their role but also have the broader more diverse thinking skills to be more innovative.

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