Why Asking “Is a Liberal Arts Degree Worth It?” Misses the Point
Oh, you’re a music major? That’s cute. It’s no mystery that a liberal arts education suffers from a very distinct kind of image problem. Seeing the intense look of dread wash over my relatives’ faces every time I tell them I’m majoring in Music History tells me everything I need to know about how the liberal arts are perceived. I’m sure it’s not too difficult for my lawyer cousins and doctor uncles to understand why I wouldn’t want to jump on a pre-law or pre-med track. But I still can’t help but feel as if the only people that see the true value of a liberal arts degree are people who also took this same path. Princeton University markets these degrees as an opportunity for “expansive intellectual grounding in all kinds of humanistic inquiry.” Still, I can’t help but feel that our liberal arts degree critics are missing the point when they ask “is a liberal arts degree worth it?”
As a liberal arts major myself, I am biased in my belief that pursuing these degrees offers a valuable learning experience and plenty of opportunities to hone skills that will be relevant post-graduation. Here are a few things our liberal arts critics might not realize when arguing that these degrees aren’t worth it:
- Liberal Arts Students Are Exposed to a Broad Range of Subjects and Topics
Okay, so this is kind of the point of liberal arts. Obvious, right? Well, higher ed professionals from Student Success to Career Services are laser-focused on creating opportunities for college upperclassmen to do exactly this type of exploration. At undergraduate business schools, it’s common for the vast majority of students to pursue classes, and eventually jobs, aligned to finance and consulting. How often do these students explore career paths outside of these industries? My guess is not frequently. Companies come to campus to recruit them into typical “first job out of college” roles. The range of potential academic focuses or jobs seems limited because, unlike their liberal arts peers, they don’t receive as much encouragement to look outside the box and take ownership of their own intellectual curiosity.
- The Academic Exploration Encourages Students to Learn How to Follow Their Curiosities – and It Will Pay Off When It Comes Time for Professional Exploration
Liberal arts requirements encourage students to follow their curiosities. When you teach an eager student how to learn to explore something that interests them, it involves teaching them how to conceptualize an idea, conduct research online and through people, and evaluate their findings to arrive at evidence-supported conclusions. These lessons aren’t just confined to the classroom. When it comes time to search for a job or internship, liberal arts students may be uniquely positioned to research potential career paths, reach out to experts in their field(s) of interest, and determine which jobs they are most interested in pursuing.
- Liberal Arts Graduates Find Interesting, Non-Traditional Jobs
The Atlantic’s 2017 article, “The Unexpected Value of the Liberal Arts,” does a brilliant job showcasing stories of people who leveraged their liberal arts education to both discover and secure positions in their fields of interest. While the professional world may look different than it did when liberal arts degrees first became the norm, new types of jobs demand skills that liberal arts students are extensively trained to demonstrate, including critical thinking, emotional intelligence, written and verbal communication skills, and more. The article explains the multitude of careers pursued by liberal arts majors: “History majors often become well-paid lawyers or judges after completing law degrees, a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project has found. Many philosophy majors put their analytical and argumentative skills to work on Wall Street. International-relations majors thrive as overseas executives for big corporations, and so on.” At Wisr’s Cleveland Liberal Arts Leadership Summit in April, a journalist for the Cleveland Scene magazine explained that, although job postings for journalists are dwindling, communications and English majors still have plenty of career paths available to them, including roles in PR, marketing, digital media, and more.
Liberal Arts Degrees are Worth it — Here’s Why
All this is to say that liberal arts degrees are valuable learning experiences. To answer the question, is a liberal arts degree worth it? Yes! Compared to a STEM or career-track degree, however, liberal arts students may need a bit of extra support communicating their skills and aligning their interests with concrete job opportunities. Time Magazine noted that one consistent narrative is a lack of career and market knowledge. Career Services professionals should seek opportunities to collaborate with Alumni Relations to connect alumni to students for career mentorship. Provide discussion guidelines, as students may not always know what to ask about. After all, we don’t know what we don’t know the first time we look for a job.
As a current student at Oberlin College, I leveraged the skills I’ve gained in the classroom with the mentoring resources made available to me by my career center to land an internship at a technology start-up. While having concrete career opportunities is fantastic, they alone don’t make my liberal arts education “worth it.” I know I’ll be served well by the skills and knowledge I’ve gained along the way.