History majors go to law school. Psychology majors go into social work. Music majors teach.
We know this because the American Community Survey recently began collecting data on college majors. Ben Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, used the survey's data on the 30 most common degrees and the 40 most common professions to create a giant interactive graphic last year on what Americans have actually done with their degrees.
The big picture is overwhelming, but when you narrow it down to individual majors, you can see that many biology majors go to medical school:
And that we finally have an answer to the cri-de-coeur set to music from the 2004 Broadway musical Avenue Q: "What do you do with a B.A. in English?" You teach. Or you go to law school. Of the most common careers in the United States, here are the ones English majors do most:
Business majors — the most common undergraduate major in the US — usually end up in some kind of management role, although plenty are also supervising retail workers:
Philosophy and religious studies majors go into the clergy, or into academia:
You can look at it the other way around, too. Here's what majors are most likely to end up in retail sales:
The data set isn't perfect — neither journalist nor architect is among the common careers that Schmidt examined, for example, so it's hard to use it to say anything about the future prospects for journalism and architecture majors. And "manager," one of the most common jobs, is such a broad category that it doesn't tell us much of anything about what the person is actually doing.
But Schmidt hopes it can make a broader point. As student debt has increased, states, the federal government and outside groups are increasingly asking whether students are getting their money's worth.
Usually, this debate breaks down into two camps: People who believe that salaries can at least partially measure the value of a college degree, and those who'd rather focus on the bigger, less tangible picture of the benefits of college.
Groups that measure salaries often look at just the first few years of a students' career. Schmidt argues that approach doesn't capture the full picture for humanities majors. He wants the data on majors to show not just long-term earning potential, but the many options that a degree in history, English or philosophy can offer.
But unlike some advocates for the humanities, he's bringing data to the argument. "We need to get our head around these numbers," he says. "Numbers are going to be more and more important for federal regulation and internally in universities. If only the bean counters have an interest in how these things are playing out, it's very easy to twist these numbers."