Liberal Arts Majors Didn't Kill the Economy

Too much demand for liberal arts didn't kill the job market. Too little aggregate demand did.


Is our college students learning?

Rarely is the question not asked nowadays. Graduates now face a tough labor market and even tougher debt burdens, which has left many struggling to find work that pays enough to pay back what they owe. Today, as my colleague Jordan Weissmann points out, young alums aren't stuck in dead-end jobs much more than usual (despite the scare stories you may have heard). But that's a cold comfort for grads who borrowed a lot to cover the high cost of their degrees.
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There are two, well, schools of thought about why freshly-minted grads have had such a tough time recently. You can blame the smarty-pants majors or blame the economy. In other words, students can't get good jobs either because they aren't learning (at least not the right things) in college, or because there aren't enough good jobs, period.

This is far from an academic debate. If recent grads can't find good work because they didn't learn any marketable skills, there's little the government can do to help, besides "nudging" current students to be more practical. And that's exactly what conservative governors in Florida and North Carolina are considering with proposals to charge humanities majors higher tuition than, say, science majors at state schools. 

But there's an obvious question. If liberal arts majors "didn't learn much in school," as Jane Shaw put it in the Wall Street Journal, why haven't they always had trouble finding work? Are there just more of them now, or is this lack of learning just a recent phenomenon? Well, as you can see in the chart below, there's no correlation the past decade between the share of grads in the most maligned majors and the unemployment rate for college grads (which has been inverted here). It's hard to see how the nonexistent rise of liberal arts explains the decline of job prospects.

(Note: I compiled data from the National Center for Education Statistics to come up with the percentage of students in "squishy" majors, which includes gender and cultural studies, English and foreign language literature, liberal arts, philosophy, and theater and visual arts. I multiplied the unemployment rate by -1, so employment falls when the line does).


Now, maybe liberal arts majors stopped learning things circa 2008 ... or maybe something else was happening then. Something like a global financial crisis. Indeed, there's no mystery when it comes to college grad unemployment; it moves in tandem with private non-residential fixed investment (that is, the state of the economy). 


In other words, too much demand for liberal arts didn't kill the job market. Too little aggregate demand did. Now, if our policymakers could just learn that....
Presented by

Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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