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.

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)

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