Op-ed: Disparities between humanities and STEM co-op pay creates misconceptions

Marie Senescall, contributor

Between college majors in the humanities and science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields, conventional beliefs argue that the latter is a far more profitable four-year investment. Although the knowledge that an engineer makes more money than a journalist is long-standing and rings true, deep-rooted misconceptions about the financial outcome of a humanities major discourage students from pursuing one. Northeastern co-op programs and their corresponding salaries for humanities versus STEM majors contribute to students’ false impressions of the job market.

On average, graduates with STEM majors earn an initial starting salary of $10,000 to $30,000 more per year than those who studied the humanities. Despite a lower starting point, humanities majors close this pay gap over time. One reason for this is because of the versatile nature graduates who didn’t study the highly specific fields of engineering and the sciences have. Humanities majors are far more flexible in their future career paths; they are not tied down to a single specialty, allowing them to shift into a variety of jobs including the high-paying fields of management, business, financial operations and law. Additionally, those graduating from the humanities report nearly equal satisfaction with their wages and similar opportunities for job advancement and security as those who studied STEM fields. Though the rewards of humanities professions eventually catch up to those in STEM, roughly 71 percent of Americans believe STEM jobs have higher salaries than those in other fields. This is a dangerous misconception.

The belief that humanities majors are tied to poor career prospects causes students to turn away from them in favor of supposedly more “sure-fire” STEM fields. Recent years have shown a major decline in the number of students who choose to major in the humanities. According to an article from The Atlantic by Northeastern assistant professor Benjamin Schmidt,  “History is down about 45 percent from its 2007 peak, while the number of English majors has fallen by nearly half since the late 1990s.” Schmidt associates this decline with the 2008 financial crash, stating that students abandoned the humanities after this crisis because they became more afraid of the job market. This fear leads students to choose majors they perceive as the most financially sustainable over where their interests may lie. As Schmidt says, students aren’t running from majors with poor financial prospects, but are instead “fleeing humanities and related fields specifically because they think they have poor job prospects.” There is an essential difference between the actual profitability of a humanities major and the false perception college students have of them.

The co-op programs at Northeastern are meant to simulate a full-time career environment. As a result, the wages provided are an essential component. The program allows employers to set the rate of pay for their hired students, leading to a disparity in salaries depending on the field of the position. Companies that hire students from the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, for example, pay between $24.00 and $42.00 per hour depending on the student’s experience, the type of position and the company. In contrast, the typical range in salary for those students employed in human services, sociology and anthropology is $14.00 to $17.00 per hour, fluctuating based on skill level and experience. Although these numbers have an aspect of functionality for the hiring companies in those respective fields and mirror the starting salaries of STEM and humanities majors, they fail to reflect the comparative wages of a lifelong career, contributing to a detrimental misconception. If humanities majors close the pay gap over time, shouldn’t co-op wages take this into account when providing a simulation of an actual career environment? This disparity in co-op salaries is partly responsible for the perception that humanities majors are less financially viable and is no doubt discouraging to students considering the field.

Schmidt finds the rapid decline in the number of students choosing to study the humanities since the financial crash of 2008 to be worthy of the term “crisis.” The humanities have an essential role in society, but to gradually erase them from college education has detrimental effects. Scott Samuelson, a professor of philosophy at Kirkwood Community College, advocated for the humanities in America as a whole, stating that “we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees.” Essentially, the study of the liberal arts is a necessary component of a well-functioning, democratic America. Humanities majors should be regarded with as much value as their STEM counterparts, and misconceptions about wage disparities must be remedied. Northeastern could make an effort to equalize its co-op salaries to reflect financial similarities between the eventual careers of students from both the humanities and STEM majors.

Marie Senescall is a first-year biology and English combined major.