What’s a college degree actually worth?

A recent study linking college majors to lifetime career earnings has rekindled the long-standing debate over the economic value of higher education.

FORTUNE — Any student or recent graduate knows the awkward college major conversation all too well: “What are you studying? Oh, interesting. What are you planning to do with that?”

Translation: Will you actually be able to pay your bills with a liberal arts degree? A recently released study linking college majors to lifetime career earnings has rekindled the long-standing debate over the economic value of higher education. The roots of this debate run deep.

John Adams, the second U.S. president, even offered his view in the late 18th century. His generation and his sons’ generation studied practical subjects “in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelaine,” he wrote his wife, Abigail, in a 1780 letter [sic.].

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