Why the failing liberal arts degree is a myth

Can a Liberal Arts degree lead to a successful career? Yes, with better college and university supports in place.

Salary vs. Skill

Salary differences often have little to do with skill levels. For example, at mid-career, a college graduate with a bachelor’s in business earns a median salary of $65k, while a graduate with a liberal arts degree only earns $51k. Is this because humanities majors are less well prepared than business majors? Actually, humanities majors score higher than business majors on the GMAT (the entrance examination for graduate business schools). Humanities majors just tend to choose less lucrative careers. When they do choose business they do just as well as business majors, if not better. Some of the most successful corporate CEO’s were humanities majors, and even tech companies are increasingly hiring liberal arts majors for their skill sets.

So if major is not the most important factor for an employer, what are they looking for? Surveys of employers show that the skills they value most include problem solving, ability to work with others of diverse backgrounds, critical thinking, and oral and written communication. Liberal arts graduates tend to do well on these foundational skills, and a recent study by Burning Glass found that by adding one or more field-specific skill sets (including marketing, social media, graphic design, data analysis, and computer programming) liberal arts graduates can dramatically expand the number of jobs they are qualified for as well as increase their starting salary.

Wanted: Better Institutional Support

While students are ultimately responsible for their own career success, colleges and universities can do more to support them. Many institutions are in the process of radically rethinking how they prepare students for the workforce—not by abandoning the liberal arts in favor of narrow job training but rather by supplementing traditional course work with additional opportunities and services.

Our new report, Reclaiming the Value of the Liberal Arts for the 21st Century, provides a number of best practices:

  • Integrated career exploration through credit courses in every year of a student’s undergraduate program (Wake Forest University)
  • Career-aligned tracks or specializations within liberal arts majors such as global business, engineering, and journalism (Mount Holyoke College)
  • Programs that encourage liberal arts majors to supplement their study with certificates from professional schools on campus (New York University)
  • Co-curricular opportunities to integrate work experience with academic coursework in intentional and reflective ways (University of Virginia)

Assessing colleges, universities, and even specific academic programs on whether or not they provide these opportunities and supports is much more useful than looking up average salaries. It also provides a better indication of the value that you are likely to receive. Still, education is not a product you purchase; it’s an activity you participate in. The ultimate value of an education depends on how much time and effort students invest in the process.

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