A Liberal Arts Degree: Smart Move
IT’S INEVITABLE. When you tell someone that you’re planning to major in a subject like history or English you get asked the dreaded question: “What are you going to do with that?”
The answer? You’re going to get a job just like everyone else. As a matter of fact liberal arts graduates are particularly well suited for today’s job market.
In fact the state of the economy technology and a broader global perspective have made liberal arts majors—and the broad range of skills they teach you—even more essential.
“A liberal arts education is more important than ever because with the recent economic downturn we witnessed the decline (and in some cases the elimination) of several important industries leaving highly skilled employees out of work in careers where job growth is not expected,” says Karen Abigail Williams, director of admission at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts in New York. And while technical skills are increasingly necessary in virtually every profession employers are recognizing that they can be taught on the job. But graduates with the “people” and communication skills that you’ll gain as a liberal arts major? They’re much more difficult to find.
So what are the liberal arts?
As a liberal arts major you’ll get an overview of the arts humanities (the study of the human condition) social sciences mathematics and natural sciences. It’s an educational style that can trace its roots back hundreds of years—and it has only gotten better with age.
“The liberal arts are as relevant today as they ever were,” says Dan Preston, vice president of enrollment services at Linfield College (OR). “Our workplaces are becoming more complex and globally interconnected and that means employers are looking for college graduates who understand the larger picture. Employers require people who have the creativity to solve challenging problems people who can communicate clearly whether they’re developing a report or a blog or an oral presentation. These are the skills students gain from a liberal arts education. Even students in professional majors such as nursing or accounting benefit from a solid foundation in the liberal arts.” Some of the more common majors include anthropology communications English history language and linguistics philosophy political science math psychology and sociology.
“There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ major within a liberal arts curriculum,” says Don Honeman, dean of admissions and financial aid at Clark University (MA). “Unless you are focused on a specific academic discipline or a clearly defined pre-professional track a liberal arts education will provide you with exposure to the entire range of human knowledge. The major choice is not as critical as the quality and breadth of the college experiences that accompany an academic program.
Any major choice within the liberal arts is designed to ensure that you leave college with in-depth knowledge of a particular area and more importantly a range of competencies that will serve you well in a variety of career settings and allow you to navigate a changing economy throughout your professional life.”
While many colleges and universities offer individual majors under the liberal arts umbrella, some schools are strictly liberal arts colleges—meaning that all of their programs are considered liberal arts.
Michael Kerchner, associate professor of psychology at Washington College in Maryland explains. “What this means is that no matter what course or what department or discipline a course may reside [in] the focus is cross- or interdisciplinary. This requires that our students have an appreciation for how multiple disciplines may contribute to fuller understanding of many complex problems such as . . . international conflicts.”
“A liberal arts education gives students an opportunity to explore a variety of academic disciplines rather than following a specific rubric of courses that train them for a career,” says Cindy Peterson, director of admissions at Piedmont College in Georgia. “Employers today are seeking qualified graduates who have a broad base of knowledge whose under-graduate experience has granted them the critical thinking skills and an understanding and appreciation of diversity ethical issues and service to others.”
What do liberal arts majors learn?
It might be easier to ask what you won’t learn. One of the benefits of a liberal arts education is the chance to explore multiple areas of interest. You’ll also acquire the skills you’ll need for lifelong learning—like research writing and communication.
“The study of liberal arts draws students into new areas of intellectual experience expanding their cultural and global awareness and understanding and prepares them to make enlightened judgments outside as well as inside their academic field,” says Jaclyn Freeland, admissions counselor for Wells College (NY). “Approximately 60 percent of college graduates do not find employment directly related to their major. A liberal arts background provides students with the critical thinking skills necessary to compete in a changing and uncertain economy. It also offers the educational support encouragement and preparation for various opportunities in graduate studies.”
So it’s not only what you learn that’s valuable but also the problem-solving and communication skills you develop that will ultimately lead to your success.
As an added bonus, more and more universities are offering liberal arts degrees online. If earning your degree from the comfort of home sounds appealing, we’ve assembled a list of liberal arts programs and related degrees offered through online study.
What kinds of jobs do liberal arts majors get?
Because the liberal arts cover such a broad spectrum of subjects there’s no one set career path. “Our majors find themselves attracted to a wide range of professional careers such as public service military service medicine national security or law,” says Kerchner.
If you’re worried about competing against those with more “practical” or narrowly defined degrees such as business or engineering don’t be.
Why? Freeland puts it this way: “With a liberal arts education students learn skills that will never become obsolete. The ability to think critically and reason wisely benefits students in all facets of their lives. The wide range of experiences and opportunities that are central to the liberal arts give students the tools necessary not only to compete but to excel in their careers.”
How can a liberal arts degree help you compete?
As a liberal arts major you’ll most likely have at least one year of professional experience under your belt—something graduates from other programs are much less likely to be able to claim. That’s because more so than other programs a liberal arts major leads students to pursue opportunities outside the classroom.
“This professional exposure and global awareness may actually make liberal arts majors more competitive than students who simply completed a series of prescribed courses without taking the opportunity to explore their interests beyond the classroom,” says Williams.
Liberal arts majors also tend to be more creative. That gives you a real edge in the job market—one that will last as long as your career does.
Honeman points out that liberal arts majors have “a capacity for critical thinking problem-solving capabilities effective writing skills interpersonal communication proficiency cultural awareness and scholarly research competencies” which will help them to better “engage in our global community and its interrelated economy.”
How do you know if a liberal arts major is right for you?
If you feel passionately about a subject such as psychology or economics your choice of major may be clear. But if you’re unsure or undecided a liberal arts major is a good choice because it doesn’t set limits on what you can explore.
“Students who are looking for a learning community focused on both depth and breadth within their curriculum are perfect for the liberal arts. The study of the liberal arts has the power to nurture students who are well rounded and demonstrate leadership abilities in various areas of their lives,” said Freeland.
“The four years you spend at college are among the most formative in your life and in many respects they may be the final chance that you have to both broaden your experiences and to delve deeply into a topic that excites you,” says Kerchner. “Challenge yourself in as many ways as you can.”
So the next time someone asks you what you plan to do with a major in the liberal arts go ahead and tell them the truth—anything and everything.