One Key Situation When an English Degree May Be a Sound Investment

Alexa Russell writes about how, for some non-Americans, investing in an English bachelors degree or higher, can lead to employment in SEO, technical writing and online content management.

Although an English degree might not end up on Len’s list of the 10 worst things ever bought, it might not be far from the truth for many American college graduates.

Generally, in the United States a collegiate English degree is considered a dubious investment. Historically, the field has been highly competitive due to a lack of job availability, and this has been compounded by the economic recession. However, for English students from countries where the language is not natively spoken, a degree — or even simple proficiency — in English can lead to vast opportunities within the global virtual market.

The Georgetown University Center of Education and the Workforce released a report titled, What’s it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors. According to the report, English Literature and Language majors constituted 28% of all Humanities and Liberal Arts students — nearly 1 million young men and women. Their median annual salary was $48,000, not as much as US History or Art History majors but more than most other liberal arts studies.

However, roughly 43% of all English majors returned to school for an advanced graduate degree. Given that the average four-year degree in the U.S. costs $83,944 and the post-graduation unemployment rate for English majors has reached 9.2%, many educational experts today warn that an English degree may not be a sound investment for American young people.

On the other hand, non-native speakers with excellent English skills have prospered within the global job market. Many foreign men and women use their English degrees to access the ever-growing online job market. Since roughly 80 percent of the world’s electronically based information is recorded in English, it has become the unofficial language of the Internet — and fluent English speakers are prized assets for any company with international dealings. And since much of the work within this field is researched, written and submitted electronically, jobs can be performed remotely and employers are no longer required to judge applicants by their geographic location.

Many English-as-a-second-language (ESL) speakers have found work within the global online market by using freelance sourcing sites such as oDesk, Elance and LiveOps, which act as intermediaries between paying clients and contracted writers. These companies have proven lucrative for American freelancers; oDesk’s number of registered writers rose by nearly 1000% between December 2008 and May 2010, while LiveOps recorded six consecutive years of double-digit growth. Now, many have begun reaching out to ESL speakers for freelance work; one such site is Australia’s 99designs, which provides freelance opportunities to 70,000 workers — and roughly 60% live outside the United States.

Foreign freelancers with English degrees can enter this market in a variety of ways. One is search engine optimization (SEO), one of the fastest growing fields on the Internet. The average SEO programmer in the United States earns $67,000 per year; this is very high compared to other countries, such as the Philippines, where the average annual salary for non-management SEO workers falls below $20,000.

Another freelance field where ESL speakers thrive is technical writing/computer programming. According to data compiled in 2005, the average technical writer/programmer employed by an American company earned an annual salary of nearly $50,000. This compared favorably to the average salaries of similar positions in Great Britain ($41,712 per year), Australia ($38,532 per year), Germany ($30,060 per year), South Korea ($26,940 per year) and Brazil ($14,880 per year).

In addition to better wages, most American companies require less work from their employees. Freelancers whose employers are headquartered in North America work an average of 39 hours per week, compared to average weekly hours from freelancers in South America (49 hours per week), Europe (41.2 hours) and Asia (39.5 hours).

Today, the notion that an English degree is not a “sound investment” should be exclusively directed toward American college students. For foreign ESL speakers, this field of study has proven to be greatly lucrative, thanks to the wide reach of the global virtual market.

Photo Credit: Jerine Lay


  1. 3

    Curry says

    Im friends with a bunch of people who majored in English…all went to State (SUNY) schools…this is where they are now:

    Friend 1: Major head hunter/major bucks…six figure earner since we were 26.

    Friend 2: college professor (currently going to school for doctorate)

    Friend 3: Writer/ published but generally broke

    Friend 4: couldn’t get a job so she got a Masters in education and is now a teacher

    Friend #1 is workin’ it! She is quite a tiger so maybe personality and drive (with a hint of creativity) ends up determining where you will work?


  2. 4


    I worked for a guy who had an English degree. He was president of the company I worked for as CFO. He took his degree and went into marketing. College prepares us for life, but liberal arts degrees may mean you go into a training program.

  3. 6


    Unless you’re going to teach English or know you’re going to be a writer (leap of faith), I don’t see the lure of majoring in English. With some reading and practice in other fields, you can become a great writer, blogger, CFO or any of hte other examples in the comments above. I don’t see what the major provides specifically that you couldn’t already acquire through self-directed reading interests, etc.

  4. 7


    I think you all have a very good point: a degree is what you make of it. My main point with the piece was to say that if someone is creative enough and learns the needs of a market, no degree is a bad investment.

    thanks for reading!

  5. 8

    Diane Roberts Powell says

    Well, I do have an English Degree, but I’m a poet, not an engineer. If one is only after the big bucks, then by all means, get a degree in Petroleum Engineering.

    I would say that the major of your undergraduate degree isn’t that all that important. However, I do feel really bad for all of the people who are earning their PhDs in English, or a host of other Liberal Arts degrees. It is such a waste of talent and youth! The universities are replacing the retired tenured professors with adjuncts. It’s terrible! And with the cost of tuition rising every year, there is no excuse for that.


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