As students start classes at colleges and universities across the country, new research shows that despite much naysaying, liberal arts degrees do lead to successful careers.

Ross Finnie, director of the Education Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa, led the study. His team followed graduates from his university from 1998 onward to see how incomes varied based on different degrees.

They looked at tax records to determine how much grads earned. "How much do they earn one year after graduation? Two years? Three years?" he said.

They found the class on 1998 started earning around $40,000, regardless of what they studied. The only major exception was health, where people started higher.

After 13 years, people with degrees in things like social sciences or English were earning about $70,000. Science grads were earning about $80,000.

Health workers were often earning in that range, or a bit lower, a detail Finnie attributed starting with union jobs, but having fewer opportunities to then increase salaries.  

STEM sees greater volatility

Statistics Canada reports that the average family income in Canada in 2013 stood at $76,550. That figure includes couples, single-parent families, and parents with children. You can see a provincial and territorial breakdown here.

While STEM grads averaged higher salaries than their liberal arts counterparts, they also experienced greater volatility.

"Especially engineering and IT — they did better, but there was a real roller coaster reflecting the demands for those skills in the economy over time," he said. "How you do will depend on what the economy looks like going out. If STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) demand stays strong, then you'll probably do well. But if it falters, things are going to bounce around a bit, and maybe not in your favour."

They didn't look at what sort of jobs people worked, or if that matched to their degrees.

"I think this whole education-job match thing is highly overrated," Finnie said. "When someone starts in the social sciences, they're getting a general set of skills. They're getting writing skills, they're getting communication skills, they're getting creative thinking skills."

He said that doesn't lead directly to a job, but it does give general skills that can be brought to a range of jobs. "Those career pathways tend to bounce around a bit, and then they find their place."

'Important surprise'

He called the findings "an important surprise."

"As someone put it, you can build a life around earnings of $70,000," he said. "And these people are only in their early to mid-thirties, and they're still on that slope upwards."

He hopes to expand his study across Canada to see if the results stand up, or were for some reason an Ottawa phenomenon. Statistics Canada plans to do similar work, he said. That should help potential students make informed, data-driven education choices, he said.

"Think about what you want to do in the context of … what different career opportunities will lead to in terms of labour market outcomes and make your choice."

Arja Vainio-Matila, the dean of Cape Breton University's School of Arts and Social Sciences, said they're having that conversation on campus. Japan has discussed closing liberal arts colleges and many people question the value of a liberal arts degree, she said.

"This global discussion plays out in Cape Breton, too. Parents — especially parents of first-generation university students – are afraid that they will get a useless degree. Who, after all, will pay their aspiring philosophy graduate to be a philosopher?" she said.

But the research shows that such a degree does lead to career success — although not necessarily by discussing the implications of Hegelianism.