The 2019 – 2020 Illini Success Report has been released, and the outcome for humanities majors are in step with outcomes across campus: better than many had feared but not as good as they would be if there wasn’t a global pandemic happening right now. Once again we learn that, contrary to popular myth, humanities majors ARE employed after graduation, and often in greater proportion than their STEM colleagues. As is often the case in times of economic downturns, the percentage of students going straight on to grad school increased from previous years, while the percentage of students getting employed decreased.
Often, however, by “outcome,” people mean “starting salary.” The salary data for recent graduates gets offered as evidence for why one should choose one major or program over another. After all, the differences are stark. The average starting salaries posted by graduates of the Gies College of Business and Grainger College of Engineering pull the campus-wide average up to $65K, which is $7K more than the average starting salary of College of Liberal Arts and Sciences graduates. If you want a high starting salary in your first job out of college, then you would be better off pursuing a degree from Gies or Granger than one from LAS (or any other college), right?
The reality is more complicated, just like the students that those numbers represent. Entry-level salary numbers reflect only a fraction of the graduating students, and those numbers say nothing about the career goals beyond that entry-level salary.
Getting a degree from Gies or Grainger does not guarantee earning that average salary upon graduation. There is a wide range of outcomes within each college, particularly when it comes to choosing grad school over employment. As a result, the Political Science, Global Studies, & Area Studies cluster has an employment rate of 36% — higher than the employment rate for Materials Science Engineering (35%), Nuclear, Plasma & Radiological Engineering (33%), and Physics (35%). History and Philosophy have an employment rate of 44%, same as Aerospace Engineering and higher than Bioengineering (39%). If the goal is to earn a salary after graduating, rather than take out additional loans, pay tuition, and/or exist on a graduate stipend, then English & Creative Writing (54%), Economics (52%), and Communication (50%) are as likely to get you there as Agricultural & Biological Engineering, Civil Engineering, or Electrical Engineering (50%). Incidentally, the highest rates of employment were posted by the College of Education — the only unit that saw employment rates increase in the first year of covid.
Salaries are useful numbers to know, but they are only one way to measure a career choice. Many students choose majors within LAS because they have goals beyond a particular salary benchmark. The LAS salary numbers include people who are taking a gap year or two before law school, med school, or other grad school and taking relatively low-paid jobs as paralegals, phlebotomists, administrative assistants, mental heath paraprofessionals, and the like in order to get relevant experience. The LAS outcomes reflect the newest high school teachers, as well as people interested in other areas of public service, community outreach/organizing, nonprofit administration, faith-based work, and political involvement. Many LAS graduates are embarking on careers in competitive fields that begin with notoriously underpaid entry-level roles: museum/archival work, media/entertainment, publishing. These career choices pull down the post-college salary average but reflect the wide range of important work that many LAS students go on to do.
More lucrative jobs are available for LAS grads who want to go into business, particularly areas that require strong “soft skills,” like sales, marketing, HR, regulatory compliance, product management, DEI management, and operations. That is why 75th percentile salaries for majors in non-quantitative fields like English ($62,500), History and Philosophy ($60,000), and Sociology, Anthropology, and Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies ($65,000) are close to the average salaries for the Management ($61,361) and Marketing ($61,264) programs in Gies. LAS students who want those jobs can get them — but many LAS students seek other kinds of success.
You are more than a number, and so are your career goals.