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Remaining Hope for the Liberal Arts Degree:

Fortune 500 CEOs Who Have Read the Classics

Close-up of weathered statue of a woman holding a book

I see it all around me in San Francisco. While the computer science and electrical engineering graduate makes off with a six-figure salary right out of college, working for the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and their wannabes, the lowly philosophy major questions his or her existence while working for a struggling nonprofit, the only job that was available and took months to land. And that entry level nonprofit job doesn't come close to paying for those $12 sandwiches downtown, much less make a dent in his or her towering student loans.

The message? A liberal arts degree, without serious connections or a fancy graduate degree to go with it, is close to worthless in the job market. As a political science degree holder (which I frequently qualify with "but I was pre-med!" as if that alone, without actually having gone to medical school, gives me some clout) I can't help but take that personally.

Employers agree that candidates' demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.

Good news! Last week, the Association of American Colleges and Universities published some encouraging findings for liberal arts degree graduates. Basically, the study found that yes, while new college graduates with a liberal arts degree are making, on average, $5,000 less than those with professional or pre-professional degrees, such as nursing or business (and a staggering $40,000 less than those with engineering or science degrees), by the time they reach their peak earning years in their 50s, they are making $2,000 more than their friends with those professional degrees. They will still be a solid $20,000 behind those with the engineering and science degrees.

Other interesting factoids from this report? 93% of employers agree that candidates' demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major. And four out of five employers agree that all students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.

This seems cold comfort to me.

Perhaps more comforting is a look at some of the highest earning CEOs of Fortune 500 companies who did it all with a degree in the humanities.

  • Lloyd Craig Blankfein, Senior Chairman and former CEO of Goldman Sachs, majored in Government at Harvard University, and went on to get his J.D. from the Harvard upon graduation. Mr. Blankfein presumably started to pay off his college loans by working as an Associate at the prestigious Am Law 100 firm Proskauer Rose, but soon thereafter left to become a precious metals salesman. His payout for 2012 at the top investment bank is reported to be $26 million.
  • Richard H. Anderson, President and CEO of Amtrak and former Director and CEO of Delta Airlines, studied Political Science at the University of Houston. He went on to get a law degree from South Texas College of Law. While neither school tops the charts in the US News and World Reports rankings, Mr. Anderson is probably not too worried about those old rejection letters from Harvard. His total calculated compensation for 2012 was $12,575,572.
  • Brian Thomas Moynihan, Chairman and CEO of Bank of America, majored in History at Brown University, and earned a J.D. from University of Notre Dame Law School. He apparently loved his liberal arts-soaked college years so much, he returned to his stomping grounds in Providence to join top law firm Edwards & Angell before getting recruited into the banking business. He made a reported $12 million in 2012.
  • Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock (a role he has held since 1988 when he co-founded the firm) got his degree in political science from UCLA. His mother was an English professor and his father owned a shoe store. He went on to get an MBA right away, also at UCLA, and is now earning more than $23 million, the total reported for 2012.
  • W. Edward Walter, Global CEO of Urban Land Institute and former CEO of Host Hotels & Resorts, doesn't have his education listed in the usual bios and reports, with noting it as "N/A". How delighted we were to find his LinkedIn entry that notes he has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Colgate University, and no apparent graduate degree. In 2012 he made $6.39 million.
  • Patrick M. Byrne took control of as CEO in 1999, and took it public in 2002 (he recently resigned in August 2019). He is perhaps our liberal arts poster child: during his collegiate years he racked up a Bachelor of Arts degree in Chinese studies from Dartmouth College, a Master's degree from Cambridge University as a Marshall Scholar, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University. Next to our banking giants, his $405,000 earned in 2012 looks a little slim, and it is reported that his base salary that year was just $100,000. Don't worry about Mr. Byrne. At least he isn't dependent upon the tip jar as your local barista.

If you have a liberal arts degree and you want to make the big dollars in business, you still might want to consider an MBA or law degree from a top school, which the report notes as lending a "significant bump" to salaries. But rest assured, having read the classics, being able to discuss Sartre, and having an opinion on Dadaism will possibly make you more interesting at dinner parties. Or not, depending on the dinner party.

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