The Value of a Liberal Arts Education
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- A liberal arts degree can teach you in-demand soft skills, such as critical thinking.
- Due to its broad curriculum, a liberal arts degree prepares you for diverse career paths.
- Cons of a liberal arts education include lower earnings and more career planning.
In May 2020, Missouri Western State University announced major cuts in response to a historic budget shortfall. In addition to laying off 30% of its faculty, the public university eliminated majors in history, political science, economics, English, philosophy, and sociology.
As higher education faces new challenges in the 21st century, a growing number of colleges are responding by cutting liberal arts majors.
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Enrollment numbers have also decreased for many liberal arts degrees. Philosophy degrees declined 21% from 2010-2016, while English degrees dropped 19%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In that same period, social sciences and history saw a 9% dip, while liberal arts and sciences degrees as a whole fell 7%.
Despite these drops, a recent report found that 80% of employers want all students to study the liberal arts and sciences. Moreover, the skills gained from a liberal arts education consistently rank among the most in-demand skills for the future.
Clearly, a liberal arts education holds value in today's job market. But do the skills you acquire from a liberal arts degree truly make it worth pursuing?
What Skills Can a Liberal Arts Degree Give You?
Recently, 92% of executives said American workers don't have the skills needed to succeed at their jobs. But the skills gap isn't just about technical knowledge — nearly half of executives think workers need more soft skills, like critical thinking and communication. While an employer can teach hard skills, it's much more difficult to train someone in soft skills.
This skills gap is bad news for employers but good news for liberal arts majors, as these in-demand competencies are exactly what a liberal arts education emphasizes.
For example, a liberal arts education builds strong communication skills, both in writing and speaking. Undergraduates learn to make persuasive arguments backed by evidence and communicate their ideas to diverse groups. A liberal arts degree also encourages creativity and fosters universally important skills, such as research, analytical reasoning, and creative problem-solving.
Many industries look for these same abilities in candidates. In fact, Udemy ranked communication, creativity, and critical thinking among the top-10 in-demand soft skills in its 2020 Workplace Learning Trends Report.
Although a professional major like accounting or engineering might teach helpful hard skills, these technical abilities can quickly become dated. By contrast, the soft skills of a liberal arts degree can last for decades.
What Can You Do With a Liberal Arts Degree?
A liberal arts education prepares graduates for careers in education, the nonprofit sector, government, and professional services. Liberal arts majors also often work in public relations, marketing, and advertising — fields that require strong communication skills.
According to a recent report from Emsi and the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, employers want the "human" skills gained from a liberal arts education, such as communication, leadership, and problem-solving. The survey found that 82% of liberal arts majors held jobs that earned them an average salary of $55,000.
List of Liberal Arts Degree Jobs
Human Resources Specialist
Public Relations Specialist
A liberal arts degree can also prepare professionals for more technical careers. Math majors benefit from strong demand in the tech industry, while English majors can work as technical writers.
Rather than looking for a particular major, many employers focus on key skills. Over 90% of employers rank a candidate's critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills as more important than their specific major.
"When people ask, 'What are you going to do with that liberal arts degree?' the answer is: 'Whatever I want,'" said Lynn Pasquerella, president of Mount Holyoke College. "It's your capacity to see how the skills you acquired can be transferred that's important."
Pursuing a Graduate Degree in the Liberal Arts
Many liberal arts majors continue their education at the graduate level; in fact, 40% of liberal arts majors earn a graduate degree. By doing so, they increase their average salary by more than $20,000 per year.
Liberal arts careers like political scientist, economist, and sociologist typically require at least a master's degree. Students with a liberal arts degree may also pursue graduate programs in mathematics, history, a foreign language, statistics, or biotechnology to increase their earning potential.
For the many liberal arts majors who go into education, a master's degree can raise their salary. Some universities offer an interdisciplinary liberal arts graduate degree that blends the humanities and social sciences.
Additionally, a liberal arts degree can help applicants gain admission to competitive professional graduate programs. In 2016, law schools accepted more than 85% of applicants with an economics, linguistics, or math major, but less than 70% of business administration and criminal justice majors.
Medical schools often admit liberal arts majors as well. The top 10 undergraduate majors for doctors include English, history, economics, psychology, and biology.
However, if you intend to pursue a graduate degree in a liberal arts subject you're passionate about, it's important to ensure you are fully funded. Any legitimate Ph.D. programs will fund their students, and paying out-of-pocket for a terminal master's degree may be inadvisable depending on your financial situation.
Is a Liberal Arts Degree Worth It?
A liberal arts education isn't for everyone and, like every field, contains certain disadvantages.
Unlike a professional degree that prepares graduates for a specific career path, liberal arts majors must invest in career planning. While it's true that a liberal arts degree appeals to many potential employers, candidates must be able to sell their skills.
On the surface, a liberal arts degree might also look more expensive than other options. For example, private liberal arts colleges typically charge the highest tuition rates. That said, many liberal arts colleges offer institutional scholarships and financial aid to help lower costs.
Students put off by the high price tag of a liberal arts college might consider earning a liberal arts degree at an in-state public school, which typically charges the lowest tuition rates.
Liberal arts majors also earn slightly lower salaries than professional majors in the years immediately after graduation. However, by their peak earning ages, liberal arts graduates tend to outearn their counterparts with professional degrees.
The Future of Liberal Arts and the Humanities
Workers born between 1957 and 1964 held an average of more than 12 jobs from ages 18-52. This trend will continue into the future, according to data from LinkedIn, which reported that 2006-2010 college graduates worked for nearly twice as many companies in the five years after graduation compared with 1986-1990 graduates.
In an increasingly changing work environment, transferable skills can help candidates stand out. In other words, a liberal arts degree can better weather a volatile job market.
Paul Timmins, director of career services at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, points to the longevity of a liberal arts education: "Liberal arts study helps students develop strong foundational competencies. It gives them tools to succeed beyond their first job."
Robert Vega, director of liberal arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees. "The basis of liberal arts education is a broad, multidisciplinary foundation," he said. "We're graduating thinkers who will solve problems of the future that we don't even know are problems today."
Likewise, Pasquerella believes that "the breadth and depth of a liberal arts education allows people to transfer their skills into new contexts. Where rapidly changing technology means rapid obsolescence, that adaptability is more important than ever."
Take, for example, the role of automation. In the future, artificial intelligence threatens to replace millions of jobs. But roles that require creativity and critical thinking are robot-resistant, according to entrepreneur Mark Cuban. "Knowing how to critically think and assess [information] from a global perspective I think is going to be more valuable" than technical skills, said Cuban.
Jonathan Rosenberg, a Google executive and advisor to Alphabet CEO Larry Page, also sees a bright future for the liberal arts. In 2017 he told CNBC, "We need more traditional liberal arts grads."
Whether you are passionate about a particular liberal arts subject, or you just want a well-rounded education that will prepare you for the future workforce, a liberal arts education is worth the investment of time, money, and energy.