These days, those who hold specialized degrees – particularly in STEM disciplines – seem to consider liberal arts degrees as something of a joke because they don’t see an obvious link between them and jobs. But maybe it’s time for the smirking to stop.
Survey results from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in collaboration with Hart Research Associates, blows a hole in some of that thinking.
After surveying college students and employers, the survey determined the most important learning outcomes based on employer priorities. These included:
- Problem solving and teamwork skills in diverse settings.
- Advanced oral and written communication skills.
- Analytic reasoning and critical thinking skills.
- Information literacy, innovation, and creativity.
- Quantitative reasoning and complex problem solving capabilities.
- A meaningful understanding of cultures and societies outside the United States.
- A broad understanding of the liberal arts.
The bottom line: Many skills developed from a liberal arts education are highly valued by employers across a broad range of industries.
What are liberal arts degrees?
Some misperceptions may rise from a misunderstanding of what is involved in a liberal arts program and how it can prepare students for the future.
To begin, it is important to understand what is meant by the phrase liberal arts. Academic subjects such as mathematics, physical and social sciences, philosophy, and literature are all incorporated into a liberal arts degree. This can include specific subjects such as:
- World History
Most people do not realize that part of earning a true liberal arts degree will include classes in math and science.
Liberal arts degrees often are a blanket term for degrees focused on the humanities. Humanities degrees – and yes, they fall into the category of liberal arts degrees – involve the study of how people have documented and processed the human experience. Subjects may include:
True liberal arts degrees have the potential to offer a diverse learning experience for the student. Skills obtained from the courses required can determine the value of the degree in securing jobs after college.
The case for liberal arts degrees
Regardless of the specialization of the degree, there are two fundamental concepts that are the focus of a liberal arts degrees: communication and critical thinking.
Melanie McNaughton is an associate professor in communications Studies at Bridgewater State University with 10 years of experience teaching liberal arts courses.
She explains, “Critical thinking, communication skills, knowledge of ethical decision-making frameworks, intercultural skills, and experience with research and evidence-based analysis are skills that form the bedrock of liberal arts education. In my experience, these skills serve students very effectively in the job market.”
Preparation for careers that don’t exist – yet
Perhaps the most unexpected benefit of earning liberal arts degrees is the preparation they provide for careers that have yet to be created. This concept would have been difficult for students or employers to understand less than 50 years ago. The proliferation of the internet has resulted in the development of new career fields at a remarkable rate.
Michele Ramsey, Ph.D. is an associate professor of communication arts & sciences and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University. She notes the importance of having a degree that provides a knowledge base that gives students the ability to adapt to the changing careers climate. Ramsey explains, “When we started our major at our college in 2007, the job of social media director didn’t really exist. And yet, people who graduated from our program in 2010 are social media directors now.”
Here’s why that’s a great example: The Bureau of Labor Statistics groups social media managers with other public relations specialists. Similar job titles include online community manager, digital engagement specialist, or social media strategist. The median annual wage for workers in this field is about $20,000 higher than the median for all workers and the job outlook for the field continues to grow.
There’s a disclaimer, of course: Students interested in professional jobs that require specific training such as accounting, engineering, programming, or another STEM field are unlikely to find the same type of value in a liberal arts degree as those in less technical fields.
It also must be acknowledged that STEM fields are typically associated with higher salaries and greater demand. But that does not mean those with liberal arts degrees deserved to be mocked and told they’ve wasted their time or tuition money. Liberal arts degrees can still be great options for those who want a broad appeal and a solid foundation for a variety of careers.