Is the History Major Dominated by the Upper Middle Class?

Here are two top-five lists of college majors. What factor determines the ranking?

Law Enforcement & Firefighting

1

English

Education

2

History

Psychology

3

Visual and Performing Arts

Computer Science

4

Economics

Medicine and Nursing

5

Sociology, Political Science, and Anthropology

On the left, the five college majors whose students come from families with the lowest mean household income; on the right, the five with the highest — from nearly $100,000 for English majors down to two-thirds that amount for law enforcement majors.

Now, the range of incomes is enormous, with one standard deviation ranging from ±$45,000 to nearly $60,000. So you’ll find an Education major coming from a family making nearly three times that of a History major’s. And the median household income for the entire country is about the same as the mean household income for those law enforcement majors.

But it is nonetheless striking — and dismaying, at least to this history professor — that humanities, arts, and social sciences fields seem to draw so heavily from the upper reaches of the middle class.

(All this from an article by The Atlantic‘s Joe Pinsker, by the way. He also pointed to research by Scottish economic historian Greg Clark, who found that upper-class students attending Cambridge were most likely to major in classics and history.)

"Why Study History?" Wordle
Wordle generated from Peter Stearns’ 1998 essay, “Why Study History?”

So what accounts for the relationship between college major and family income?

Sociologist Kim Weeden — source of the lists above via her analysis of National Center of Education Statistics data — told Pinsker that “It’s … consistent with the claim that kids from higher-earning families can afford to choose less vocational or instrumental majors, because they have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment.” She also suggested that higher-income students tend to attend smaller schools with fewer professional major options (e.g., Law Enforcement), and that they may have had earlier exposure to arts, music, and literature.

Pinsker also added his own hypothesis, in light of the much-cited Georgetown University study of college majors and salaries, that “students born with built-in financial safety nets are more likely to gravitate toward less-lucrative majors. It’s speculative, but richer students might be going on to take lower-paying jobs because they have the knowledge that their parents’ money will arrive eventually.”

What do you think of this data, or the explanations suggested for it? Does it square with your own experience as a student, parent, or educator?


2 thoughts on “Is the History Major Dominated by the Upper Middle Class?

  1. Chris- very interesting- I wonder if it also has to do with people who major in the liberal arts taking the skills there and applying them in other lucrative field. For those in lower class they need to be sure that they have a skill and can earn money right after college so that they can start paying off college loans.

    You also have the issue of what constitutes “middle class” something that I try to unpack for my students. The notion that everyone is middle class (or upper middle class) except for the one percent seems to be a horrible use of terms- especially if those terms are supposed to have any reality in a statistical deviation of the population- but this is probably a topic for a different post

    1. Eric – Yes, “middle class” is as fuzzy as a category gets these days. I only used it as an alternative to The Atlantic’s headline: “Rich Kids Study English.”

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