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Hey liberal arts grads, there's hope for you yet, salary study shows

Over time, salaries for liberal arts majors closely track annual earnings for grads with professional degrees.
Over time, salaries for liberal arts majors closely track annual earnings for grads with professional degrees.CNBC / Assoc. of American Colleges and Universities

Turns out English majors aren't doomed to work for Starbucks wages for the rest of their lives.

While liberal arts majors typically have a harder time finding jobs and make less than their college classmates in other fields, they close much of the salary and unemployment gap over time, a new report shows.

"That's a myth out there—that somehow if you major in humanities, you're doomed to be unemployed for the rest of your life," said Debra Humphreys, a co-author of the report and a policy analyst at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. "This (study) suggests otherwise."

Using Census data, Humphries found that over the long run of their careers, liberal arts majors eventually catch up with—and slightly outearn—classmates with professional and pre-professional degrees. But it takes an advanced degree to close the gap; liberal arts majors with only an undergraduate degree still end up at the back of the salary pack throughout their careers.

By the time they reach their peak earning years (age 56 to 60), liberal arts majors make some $40,000 more than they did just out of school. While they make less than classmates with professional degrees through much of their careers, salaries for liberal arts majors peak at about $66,000 a year, some $2,000 more than those with professional degrees.

To be sure, liberal arts majors still earn significantly less throughout their lives than math and science grads, who are pulling in about $87,000, on average, by their late 50s. Engineers end up on top of the salary scale, making peak salaries of $98,000.

A lot depends on the careers liberal arts majors end up pursuing: Those who go into the legal profession earned $127,000 a year at the peak, while those in service jobs topped out at $37,000.

While their salaries may catch up over time, liberal arts majors can expect to pound the pavement harder than the rest of their classmates throughout their careers. Although the jobless rate falls from 5.2 percent for liberal arts majors just out of school to 3.5 percent when the reach 41- to 50-years-old, they never quite close the unemployment gap with professional graduates, whose rate drops from 4.2 to 3.1 percent among the same age groups.

By CNBC's John Schoen. Follow him on Twitter@johnwschoen or email him.