Last week I spoke at a seminar on the public funding of the humanities and social sciences. In my presentation I showed a slide of the earnings of male arts bachelor degree graduates compared to all graduates, showing that the median male arts graduate earned significantly less than other bachelor graduates (less than the slide suggests, since I did not extract arts graduates from the total).
What I should also have done is added median earnings for the upper vocational qualifications, which I have now done in the figure below (due to limitations in the way the ABS publishes census data, I have taken median as the mid-point in the income catgory in which the median person appears). Overall it shows a quite similar earnings profile with the arts graduates, with the effects of earlier full-time workforce entry showing in the higher earnings for certificate III/IV qualified workers in their 20s.
This data does need some significant qualification. It is based on a 2006 census question about main field of study in the person’s highest qualification, and takes as arts graduates men who gave as their main field of study language and literature, philosophy, politics or an ABS category that includes history. Many people with bachelor arts degrees do higher degrees, in their own or other fields. And people who did double degrees including arts may have put their other degree on the census form.
Nevertheless, it does suggest that a straight arts bachelor degree in traditional academic fields should be viewed sceptically as a human capital investment. This data is consistent with the main benefits being consumption and personal development. Underlying ability and screening effects would explain much of the premium that we would find if we compared arts graduates with people with school-level educational attainment.