In 2009 the United States graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math, and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual-and-performing-arts graduates in 1985. There is nothing wrong with the arts, psychology, and journalism, but graduates in these fields have lower wages and are less likely to find work in their fields than graduates in science and math. Moreover, more than half of all humanities graduates end up in jobs that don’t require college degrees, and those graduates don’t get a big income boost from having gone to college.
Most important, graduates in the arts, psychology, and journalism are less likely to create the kinds of innovations that drive economic growth. Economic growth is not the only goal of higher education, but it is one of the main reasons taxpayers subsidize higher education through direct government college support, as well as loans, scholarships, and grants. The potential wage gains for college graduates is reason enough for students to pursue a college education. We add subsidies to the mix, however, because we believe that education has positive spillover benefits for society. One of the biggest of those benefits is the increase in innovation that highly educated workers theoretically bring to the economy.