liberal arts

Is the liberal arts degree in danger?

There are steps liberal arts majors can take to ensure ROI on their degrees

Despite rumblings that liberal arts degrees don’t hold strong value for today’s graduates, a new report reveals a number of high-earning occupations for liberal arts graduates to pursue–as long as they have specific skills.

Saving the Liberal Arts, the report from AEI and Burning Glass Technologies, offers an analysis of detailed information on job postings and worker resumes. The data reveal that employers are seeking employees with broad knowledge–the type of knowledge that comes from liberal arts–along with practical skills and knowledge.

Authors Mark Schneider, AEI visiting scholar, and Burning Glass Technologies chief executive officer Matthew Sigelman contend that liberal arts majors should tap into in-demand skills to improve their pay and potentially erase the salary gap with STEM graduates. Those graduates who lack practical skills, even if those skills require additional training, are more likely to be underemployed.

As student debt balloons, conversations about the value of a college degree have also increased. And with much of today’s career emphasis on STEM job openings, the value of liberal arts degrees may seem diminished.

(Next page: What can liberal arts majors to do ensure ROI on their degrees?)

The research found more than 3.8 million entry-level jobs for graduates with bachelor’s degrees, and liberal arts graduates could qualify for 1.4 million of those jobs if they also have additional skills training.

“The fact that liberal arts majors make less in the job market is true, but it isn’t preordained,” says Sigelman. “The skills liberal arts majors acquire, like critical thinking and communication, are highly valued by employers. But employers also need specific technical skills to do a specific job. If a liberal arts major plans ahead and gains some key skills, they become much more competitive in the job market, and can even earn salaries comparable to STEM majors.”

Those entry-level jobs for liberal arts graduates offer comparable salaries to entry-level STEM careers, and 10 career clusters could give liberal arts graduates the best employment and advancement potential: business administration, data analysis and data management, human resources, information technology and networking, sales, programming and software development, finance, marketing and public relations, design, and media and communication.

But liberal arts graduates should be prepared and willing to invest in training that will strengthen additional skills to make them more marketable to potential employers in those 10 career clusters.

Four themes can help students better prepare for the job market and can help colleges improve their advising, according to the report:

  • Demand for communication and human-centric skills: As more technical and repetitive tasks are becoming automated, the relative value of other skills–such as communication and creativity–grows. Liberal arts graduates should be well positioned for success in a workforce that is somewhat increasingly human-centric.
  • Hybridization of jobs: One of the key drivers of workforce “hybridization” is the increasing prevalence of digital technologies across industries. This requires a more digitally literate workforce, and students can tap into these job opportunities by adding computer science, statistics, and other quantitative electives to the traditional core courses required by their majors.
  • Growth of digital skills: One of the key drivers of workforce hybridization is the increasing prevalence of digital technologies across industries, which in turn requires a more digitally literate workforce. That programming and software development is the fastest-growing career cluster of all those identified as potential targets for liberal arts students shows this.

“Students in liberal arts programs also need to be aware that today’s job market is increasingly becoming characterized by a smorgasbord of skills that should be mixed and matched to increase employment opportunities and earnings outcomes,” Schneider and Sigelman write in the report. “Consider, for example, the amalgamation of skills that market research analysts, for instance, now need—data analytics skills paired with marketing expertise, which are traditionally disparate skill sets.”

Graduates also should take care to target careers with upward trajectories. By carefully planning for and managing their professions, they can avoid costly and time-consuming career changes.

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Laura Ascione