What is the Value of a History Degree in the Labour Market?

14 04 2012

Let me rephrase this question to be more precise: What was the (Economic) Value of a History Degree to Someone in the UK Labour Market in between 2001 and 2011?

The short answer is that we don’t really know. However, statistics recently released by the UK’s ONS show that average hourly earnings for people who hold degrees in the “social studies” category are £16.33, whereas people with “humanities” degrees earn, on average, just  £14.63 per hour.  Given that history is described as a social science at some universities and a humanity at others, there are probably history graduates in both categories.

Degree subject studied Median hourly earnings
Medicine and dentistry 21.29
Mathematical sciences, engineering, technology and architecture 18.92
Physical or environmental sciences 17.74
Business 17.30
Education 16.97
Law 16.95
Social studies 16.33
Biological and agricultural sciences 15.83
Librarianship and languages 14.85
Medical related subjects 14.65
Humanities 14.63
Arts 12.06
All graduates 15.18
Non-graduates 8.92

It would be extremely interesting to see which types of history degrees produce the highest average incomes. To my knowledge, nobody has compared the value of history degrees from different universities. It wouldn’t be terribly risky to say that  people with history degrees from Oxford are going to do very well, on average. That goes pretty much without saying.  Moreover, people who graduate from universities in the most prosperous parts of the country (e.g., London) are going to have much higher nominal incomes than people with the same degree who live in an economically depressed area (e.g., Belfast).

To my mind, however, the really interesting data would involve comparing the earning power of history degrees from comparable institutions in similar regions of the country or even the same city. If you have two universities that are taking similar students and are sending their graduates to work in the same region with precisely the same degree, you would expect their graduates to be earning roughly the same. If one institution’s graduates are performing substantially better, however, it would be worthwhile to investigate what they are doing right and to see whether their techniques for adding value can be replicated elsewhere.

A report published in the United States in May 2011 concluded that: that history majors do the best in the humanities, and better than students in a majority of the other fields.

The odd thing about the US study is that it found that students with degrees in “United States history” earned more than students with degrees in just plain old “history.” That sounds completely counter-intuitive to me, as one of the benefits of  a historical education is exposure to different cultures, countries, etc and that people who a relatively cosmopolitan tend to do better in the labour market over the long term. (I didn’t know that you could do a degree in “US history”. Seems a bit overspecialized for an undergraduate degree).

You can read more about the US study here.

There are many reasons for doing a university degree. Not all of them are economic, but some are.  Personally, I think that history departments and departments in similar academic disciplines sometimes don’t think enough about how they can improve the economic prospects of their graduates. One strategy that occurs to me is that we might try encouraging our students to spend a term or a year at an overseas university. I don’t have any hard data to back me up, but I suspect that study abroad years for undergraduates probably do increase their lifetime earning power.

I wonder if my readers have other suggestions. Obviously there are limits as to how much we can change the historical curriculum to suit the changing whims of the job market, but there are probably ways we can modify historical education to increase the economic value of a degree.

Hat Tip to Tim Leunig for the data.