UW-Madison is touting the results of a survey that show only 5.9 percent of the liberal arts class of 2012-13 is unemployed and that a plurality of those in the workforce make between $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

That sounds good until you realize their unemployment rate is eight-tenths of a percentage point higher than the nation’s — in a nation where only 32 percent of those over 25 have bachelor’s degrees — and that more than half of all UW-Madison students graduate with an average debt load of almost $28,000.

That might not be the fairest way to frame the survey’s results, but neither is saying an education in the liberal arts is a sure ticket into the middle class.

Letters & Science is UW-Madison’s biggest college, enrolling about half of all undergrads; its 65 majors range from religious studies to computer sciences.

And there are differences in employment and salary by field of study. Only 47 percent of natural science grads are working full-time, while 60 percent of social sciences grads are. For graduate school enrollment, the trend was reversed, with about twice as many natural sciences grads as humanities and social sciences grads in graduate or professional school.

Employed natural sciences grads also tended to make about $10,000 more than those from the social sciences and humanities.

The survey also shows grads don’t always work in the fields they studied. The top employment sectors for humanities grads, for instance, were elementary and secondary schools (9.22 percent); restaurants and other food services (5.83 percent); and computer systems design and related services (4.85 percent).

The top employer by number of employed is UW-Madison, which employs 41 of the 1,324 people who responded to the survey. Walmart, Target and Starbucks show up on that list, too, but account for only 11 graduates.

The university isn’t making such data available by major. Rebekah Paré, executive director of the L&S Career Initiative and Career Services said “response rates were not often high enough to make accurate claims about outcomes.”

John Stevenson, associate director of the UW Survey Center, which created the survey, said that while many alumni surveys are meant to serve the university’s public relations agenda, he was impressed with the college’s desire to get at the facts.

It’s an interesting desire, given that liberal arts professors have been known to champion the liberal arts as a tool for teaching students how to think — not for something so pedestrian as getting a job.

“It’s not an either/or,” L&S dean John Karl Scholz told me.

The survey is an effort to be accountable, he said, but the college is “not trying to commodify this remarkable education that we’re trying to provide to students.”

As employment becomes increasingly specialized, employers seek trained employees and politicians demand a return on public investments in higher ed, those in the liberal arts have little choice but to be mindful of commodification.

The challenge will be combining good PR with an accurate picture of, say, a philosophy major’s career prospects — all while teaching a few students how to think along the way.

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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