Recent Study Shows that 55% of International Leaders Have Liberal Arts Degrees

Posted By Abby Perkins on June 10, 2015 at 12:04 pm
Recent Study Shows that 55% of International Leaders Have Liberal Arts Degrees

A recent study by the British Council has found that most leaders of organizations around the world hold a degree in the social sciences. Forty-four percent of survey respondents reported holding a social sciences degree, and another 11 percent have a humanities degree. The British Council asserts that this study should be proof that liberal arts degrees are not only relevant, but necessary to a thriving economy.

Why liberal arts matter

According to Rebecca Hughes, Director of Education at the British Council, this survey shows that the idea that everyone should study career-oriented subjects is flawed. In a statement, she said that people with backgrounds that provide broad cultural reference points, as well as academic training that encourages looking at human dimensions, allows people to lead and to succeed. In other words, understanding people and cultures is an essential component of leadership.

Barna Donovan, Director of the Graduate Program in Strategic Communication at Saint Peter’s University, argues that liberal arts degrees still matter because “they provide an education that teaches students how to think critically [and] analytically, and how to use logic and reason to find facts and truth.” Dr. Chester Goad, Director of Disability Services and graduate instructor at Tennessee Technological University, agrees: One might think that the extra emphasis on STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math), has diminished the importance of liberal arts. However nothing could be further from the truth.” The liberal arts, he says, “encourage us in the areas of possibilities, creativity, diverse world views and fluid cultural changes. All of that is important for those studying STEM disciplines as well.”

Dr. Michele Ramsey, Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and Women’s Studies at Penn State Berks, argues that liberal arts degrees even provide the kind of marketable skills that most people assume come more from technical degrees. “Students are hearing from all directions that they should avoid liberal arts degrees and focus on STEM majors. Thus, fewer students may be choosing the liberal arts degrees at their colleges and universities.” However, she adds, “If you look at the data (and it’s been pretty consistent for the over 20 years I’ve been teaching), STEM-specific skills and knowledge are not the top attributes employers say they actually want in students. In fact, they point to skill sets most often (though not only) perfected in liberal arts majors, and communication (both written and oral) is generally at the top of that list. It’s certainly not the case that we don’t need STEM majors or that what they learn isn’t valuable. But we need both STEM and humanities/arts/social sciences majors.”

The data: A closer look

Is cultural understanding enough to propel a graduate into leadership? The same survey found that over half of these professional leaders hold an advanced degree – either a master’s or a doctoral degree – and less than 10 percent of those advanced degrees are in the humanities. The majority of those who held advanced degrees had an MBA; however, a liberal arts degree can successfully prepare a student for an MBA program. USA Today reports that more than half of all students who are pursuing an MBA were not business majors – in fact , many of them hold a degree in liberal arts.

The number of social science and humanities graduates was split among people of different age groups. Leaders under the age of 45 were more likely to hold a liberal arts degree, while those over 45 were more likely to have completed programs in health, math, science, and engineering. Interviews with study participants also revealed that their exposure to multicultural environments and the connections made while completing their education were just as important as any technical skills they obtained.

The push for social science cuts

The results of this survey come at a time when the relevance of social sciences are being questioned among lawmakers in the U.S. In 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that majors like psychology and anthropology do not contribute to the state’s economy, and that funding to programs like these should be cut. A bill has also recently passed the House that would redirect research funds from social science, climate, and energy research to science and technology interests.

What this means for students

If there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that a liberal arts degree does not prevent students from succeeding and reaching positions of leadership. On the other hand, the predominance of graduate degrees among world leaders does suggest that a liberal arts degree by itself is not necessarily enough. That liberal arts degrees appear to be a stepping stone to leadership, however, should squash the notion that these degrees are not beneficial to our economy.

Abby Perkins
Email | Twitter | LinkedIn Abby Perkins attended Davidson College, where she graduated with a B.A. and Honors in English and wrote for The Davidsonian newspaper. Abby's work has been featured on Yahoo! Finance and Entrepreneur. As Managing Editor, Abby is a regular contributor to the GoodCall newsroom, covering education and financial aid.

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