Attacks on supposedly "useless" liberal arts degrees are hard to miss these days. These majors are routinely mocked, and those who select them are warned they'll end up working at Starbucks and living in their parents' basement until they're 40.

But a new analysis by two economists for The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation should reassure students drawn to these "less practical" fields (and their stressed out parents). Sure, you'll earn more out of the gate if you get an engineering degree, but a liberal arts education is far from a dumb idea. In fact, it's well worth the investment if that's where your heart leads you.

Believe it or not, a philosophy degree is still a solid investment.

What's wrong with the usual scare stories about a liberal arts education? First off, the authors note that if you're the kind of person who is seriously considering studying art therapy or anthropology, you're unlikely to have the passion to thrive in some random tech-oriented job. Being unhappy in a career path is one of the best ways not to succeed in it.

If you accept that different types of people are drawn to different career paths and different careers offer different possibilities when it comes to pay (call this the 'prospective philosophy majors would make miserable programmers' hypothesis'), then a new question emerges. Does having a liberal arts education help those more inclined to the arts and humanities succeed financially?

After crunching through an mind-numbing quantity of data (here's the complete report: it's not a scintillating read): the answer is a clear yes.

The authors conclude that while science, engineering, and pre-professional grads earn more out of the gate, their advantages decrease over time (other analyses have found the same thing). Perhaps more importantly, using data from Harvard's Equality of Opportunity Project, they also show that liberal arts degrees do nearly as well as more practical degrees at lifting up students from poorer backgrounds.

The bottom line is that, if you're inclined more towards the humanities than the likes of computer science, then a good liberal arts degree will help you do well in your career and is generally well worth the time and money it takes to earn.

"All the evidence shows that the bashing of liberal arts colleges, and the liberal arts, just isn't well founded, just isn't based on evidence," concludes author Catharine B. Hill.

CEOs and futurists have good things to say about the liberal arts.

The report is not without its critics, who note complications with the data (for instance, the authors sometimes conflate graduating from a liberal arts college with studying liberal arts, even though you can get a science or engineering degree at many of these schools). But you don't have to reply on just this one report to make the case that majoring in an "impractical" field isn't economic suicide.

A variety of CEOs, have spoken up about the value of liberal arts degrees. "A well-rounded liberal arts degree establishes a foundation of critical thinking. Critical thinkers can accomplish anything," Reverb.com CEO David Kalt wrote in the WSJ, for instance.

Meanwhile, an analysis by LinkedIn economist Guy Berger shows that over time, those with more broadly focused liberal arts degrees handle today's fast-changing job market better than those with narrowly focused pre-professional degrees. "There is a real concern that these labor-market-oriented degrees that focus on specific technical skills are not as durable," he commented.

Finally, futurists that study the impact of A.I. on the job market often stress that the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that come with a liberal arts degree are the kind of things robots won't be doing anytime soon. "What can't be replaced in any organization imaginable in the future is precisely what seems overlooked today: liberal arts skills," Tom Perrault, Chief People Officer of Rally Health, argued on HBR.

No one should oversell the point here. Everything depends on the individual student, their talent, interests, and economic situation (and likely level of debt after school). But economic data offers no reason to talk yourself out of a liberal arts degree. No degree is a golden ticket to worldly success, but majoring in the likes of philosophy isn't a one-way ticket to living in your parents' basement either.

Published on: Mar 25, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.