While parents, politicians, and pundits seem to be increasingly skeptical about the value of the liberal arts degree, my experience (and my research) shows otherwise.

I have an undergraduate degree in physics and a PhD in history. Now, there aren’t many jobs that require those specific degrees, but that hasn’t stopped me from succeeding in a number of fields. I’ve worked in management consulting and science policy, and now I do best practice research for university administrators. When I hire people, I don’t care what they majored in; I just want to know whether they’ve developed the kinds of skills they need to be successful. This year my research team hired 58 new people, almost all of them liberal arts majors.

Salaries and Unemployment Rates

Now, I understand why parents, in particular, are worried. I’ve seen the data that show liberal arts majors on average have lower starting salaries and higher unemployment rates than other college graduates. And as the cost of college rises and the amount of student debt increases, it’s only natural for people to ask, “What am I getting for all this money?” That’s a big part of the reason so many families (and policy makers) are interested in measuring the “return on investment,” or ROI, for college–the difference between what you pay to go to college and what you earn afterwards. You can now go to dozens of websites (including the federal College Scorecard) and see average salaries for graduates by institution and, in some cases, by major. I’m all for transparency, but I worry that this information may be doing more harm than good.

Damaging Metrics

The ROI metrics have been particularly damaging for liberal arts majors and liberal arts colleges, and over the past few years we’ve seen rapidly declining enrollments in many liberal arts programs as well as financial challenges at many small liberal arts colleges. Some would argue that this is a rational economic response as students look for a better ROI, but this assumes that education works like an investment with a fixed rate of return. You put your money in, and then you start collecting your return.

It’s important to remember that these metrics average over many students with many different outcomes, backgrounds, and goals. The university and the major are not the most important factors responsible for graduates’ salaries (though they are the easiest to measure). The career choices that students make are critical. A college (or major) that sends many students into PhD programs or the Peace Corps or teaching or social work will have a lower average salary than one that sends more students into engineering or financial services.

(Next page: Why the tech and business industries are seeking liberal arts majors; new liberal arts degree research)

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.

About the Author:

David Attis is a managing director of Research at EAB, a best practices research firm that serves over 1,100 colleges and universities.