What Are Liberal Arts?

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IT’S INEVITABLE. When you tell someone that you’re planning to major in a liberal arts field like history or English, you get asked the dreaded question: “What are you going to do with that degree?”

What Are Liberal Arts?

You don’t really need to have an answer. If you want to major in a liberal arts subject, go for it. The practical stuff, like getting a job, will work itself out. In fact, liberal arts graduates are well suited for today’s job market.

Why? Because the state of the economy, technology and a broader global perspective have made liberal arts majors—and the wide range of skills that they impart—more essential than ever before.

Liberal Arts – The Ultimate Guide

“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.

Employers are recognizing that while employees can be taught the technical skills of a job, the “people” and communication skills that liberal arts majors possess aren’t as easy to find or teach.

What do colleges mean by “liberal arts”?

linguistic student in a classroom

In its broadest of terms, it’s an education that provides an overview of the arts, humanities (the study of the human condition), social sciences, mathematics and natural sciences.

“Artes liberals are rooted in classical antiquity and refer to the general skills (=artes) a free person (=liberals) needed to contribute meaningfully to society,” shared Concordia University associate professor, Dr. Michael Thomas. “Today, we intend for this to translate into life-long, self-motivated learners who can flourish in——even transform ——the world.”

Some of the more common majors include: anthropology, communication, English, history, language and linguistics, philosophy, political science, math, psychology and sociology. Unlike the colleges and universities that offer these majors, other Some schools are strictly liberal arts colleges—meaning that all of their majors are considered liberal arts.

Michael Kerchner, associate professor of psychology at Washington College in Maryland explains that his school is a college of the liberal arts. “What this means to the faculty—and the students as well — 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 undergraduate experience has granted them the critical thinking skills and an understanding and appreciation of diversity ethical issues and service to others.”

Earning a Liberal Arts degree online

As more and more working adults return to college, the availability of accredited online degree programs is on the rise. Although subjects like business and accounting seem to attract a lot of students, universities have also found an increase in demand for liberal arts majors such as psychology, human services, and general liberal arts, to name a few. If online study interests you, we have compiled a list of the most popular liberal arts degrees offered online to help you find programs that match your goals and interests.

What is a Liberal Arts Degree?

journalism student writing an article

A Liberal Arts Degree can refer to either an actual Bachelor of Liberal Arts or a degree in one of many Liberal Arts disciplines.

A Bachelor of Liberal Arts (BLA) provides a broad overview of humanities and is ideal for students who have a variety of academic interests they wish to explore. Students will take courses in philosophy, mathematics, literature, art history, languages – covering a range of areas rather than one specialized field.

A “Liberal Arts Degree” may also refer to a degree in any liberal arts discipline. Examples include:

  • Advertising
  • African-American Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Art History
  • Astronomy
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Creative Writing
  • Criminal Justice
  • Economics
  • English
  • Film and Video
  • Finance
  • Fine Arts
  • French
  • Geology
  • History
  • Journalism
  • International Studies
  • Linguistics
  • Mathematics
  • Philosophy
  • Photography
  • Psychology
  • Religion
  • Russian Studies
  • Sociology
  • Spanish
  • Speech
  • Statistics
  • Theatre

There are hundreds of disciplines that can fall under this umbrella!

A Liberal Arts Degree – whether it’s a BLA or a degree in a Liberal Arts discipline – prepares students for the future by focusing on increased knowledge and understanding, rather than on training for a particular occupation.

What are Liberal Arts Classes?

architect sketching a draft for his project

Liberal Arts Classes are classes in the Liberal Arts subject areas, which generally include humanities, social sciences, creative arts and sciences. If you’re thinking that seems like a very broad list, you’re right! Because Liberal Arts is such a diverse field, students take classes in a wide variety of subjects.

Here are some examples of Liberal Arts Classes:

  • Personal Finance
  • Literature
  • Physics
  • Creative Writing
  • Social Psychology
  • Global Inequality
  • Women Studies

The classes run the gamut, but are designed to turn students into thinkers, communicators and leaders.

What is a Liberal Arts College?

A Liberal Arts College is an institution that provides a broad, diverse range of education rather than specialized career training. Students are encouraged to explore different fields to prepare for a variety of career options, rather than one particular occupation. Hallmarks of a Liberal Arts College include strong critical thinking and communication skills, which are essential in every field.

Liberal Arts colleges are typically private and tend to be small, both in overall population and in class size. Students benefit from an intimate learning environment, as well as increased access to professors and faculty.

What do liberal arts majors learn?

digital artist working on a logo

A better question would be: What won’t you 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.

Says Victoria McGillin, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Linfield College in Oregon: “Our [liberal arts majors] learn to read materials closely meaningfully analyze problems apply systematic approaches to the resolution of those problems and communicate solutions to others.”

David Kogler, associate director of admission at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota gives the following example of this. “Instead of learning only about business at a business school a liberal arts degree will teach you about business as well as the history politics and other areas that influence and shape the world of business.”

Bob Murray dean of enrollment management at Illinois Wesleyan University believes that a liberal arts education is more critical today than ever before. “A liberal arts education develops both the left and right side of the brain. Effective problem solving requires strong analytical and creative processes. Developing critical thinking skills and being able to comprehend various subjects and perspectives adds to the ability of liberal arts graduates to successfully connect the dots between multiple disciplines. Students benefit from being in small interactive classes with highly qualified faculty who teach them to discriminate and constructively challenge what they read see and hear. Learning and experiencing global perspectives enhances their ability to communicate with the highly diverse communities we live in.”

So it’s not only what you learn that’s valuable but also the higher order thinking and communication skills you develop like learning how to adapt to different situations that will ultimately lead to your success.

What are the most popular liberal arts majors?

advertising firm doing quarterly meeting

While there is such a thing as a Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree, oftentimes Liberal Arts majors is used to refer to anyone studying the Liberal Arts subject areas: humanities, social sciences, creative arts and sciences.

Some of the most popular majors or areas of concentration within Liberal Arts include:

  • History
  • Psychology
  • Philosophy
  • Linguistics
  • Literature

But keep in mind that Liberal Arts is a wide umbrella, and can vary by institution. While one university may place Mathematics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, another may offer it in their College of Engineering.

What kinds of liberal arts degree jobs are available?

A liberal arts degree will prepare you for hundreds of careers!

Here are some examples of careers you could pursue with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts:

Occupation Median Salary

Career Outlook

(2016-2026)*

Advertising, Promotions and Marketing Managers

 

$129,380 per year

10% (faster than average)

Public Relations Specialists

$59,300 per year

9% (average)

Interpreters and Translators

$47,190

18% (much faster than average)

Writers and Authors

$61,820

8% (average)

Graphic Designers

$48,700

4% (slower than average)

Craft and Fine Artists

$49,160

6% (average)

*Source:  U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Because it is such a diverse field, you will be qualified to work in nearly any industry.

Those who opt for the broad Liberal Arts degree, rather than choosing an area of concentration, may wish to look for jobs with training opportunities.

List of the Best Liberal Arts Colleges

philosophy student reading in the library

It can be tough to determine which are the best Liberal Arts Colleges, since they are all focused on providing excellent undergraduate programs in a wide range of subjects. But there are some important things to keep in mind as you consider your options.

First, if you are interested in a specific concentration, look for a Liberal Arts program that includes that as an option. See what the requirements are and whether it meets all of your needs.

Second, check out lists of the Top Liberal Arts Colleges (such as the one below). These rankings are typically based off of important data such as tuition fees, admission rates, graduation rates, class size and program diversity.

And finally, consider the subjective metrics as well. At the end of the day, you know yourself and what is important to you.  Here are some to consider:

  • Reputation
  • Sports teams
  • Religious affiliation
  • Percentage of students in fraternities/sororities
  • Proximity to hometown
  • Friends or relatives who attend / have attended
  • Extracurricular opportunities
  • Dining options
  • How you “feel” on campus

How heavily these things weigh will vary from student to student, but don’t let anyone tell you they don’t matter!

Top Nationally Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal Arts College Rankings Location U.S. News Ranking – 
National Liberal Arts Colleges
Tuition
Williams College Williamstown, MA 1 $55,450
Amherst College Amherst, MA 2 $56,426
Swarthmore College Swarthmore, PA 3 (tie) $52,588
Wellesley College Wellesley, MA 3 (tie) $53,732
Bowdoin College Brunswick, ME 5 (tie) $53,922
Carleton College Northfield, MN 5 (tie) $54,759
Middlebury College Middlebury, VT 5 (tie) $54,450
Pomona College Claremont, CA 5 (tie) $52,780
Claremont McKenna College Claremont, CA 9 $54,405
Davidson College Davidson, NC 10 $51,447
Grinnell College Grinnell, IA 11 (tie) $52,392
Haverford College Haverford, PA 11 (tie) $54,592
Smith College Northampton, MA 11 (tie) $52,404
Vassar College Poughkeepsie, NY 11 (tie) $56,960
Washington and Lee University Lexington, VA 11 (tie) $52,455
Colgate University Hamilton, NY 16 (tie) $55,870
Hamilton College Clinton, NY 16 (tie) $54,620
Colby College Waterville, ME 18 (tie) $55,210
Harvey Mudd College Claremont, CA 18 (tie) $56,876
United States Military Academy West Point, NY 18 (tie) N/A (out-of-state), N/A (in-state)
Wesleyan University Middletown, CT 18 (tie) $54,614
Bates College Lewiston, ME 22 (tie) $53,794
Soka University of America Aliso Viejo, CA 22 (tie) $33,146
United States Naval Academy Annapolis, MD 22 (tie) N/A (out-of-state), N/A (in-state)
Barnard College New York, NY 25 (tie) $55,032
University of Richmond Univ. of Richmond, VA 25 (tie) $52,610
Bryn Mawr College Bryn Mawr, PA 27 (tie) $52,360
Colorado College Colorado Springs, CO 27 (tie) $55,470
Macalester College St. Paul, MN 27 (tie) $54,348
Kenyon College Gambier, OH 30 (tie) $55,930
Mount Holyoke College South Hadley, MA 30 (tie) $49,998
Oberlin College Oberlin, OH 30 (tie) $55,052
Scripps College Claremont, CA 30 (tie) $55,024
United States Air Force Academy USAF Academy, CO 30 (tie) N/A (out-of-state), N/A (in-state)
College of the Holy Cross Worcester, MA 35 $52,770
Bucknell University Lewisburg, PA 36 (tie) $56,092
Franklin and Marshall College Lancaster, PA 36 (tie) $56,550
Lafayette College Easton, PA 36 (tie) $52,880
Occidental College Los Angeles, CA 39 (tie) $54,686
Union College Schenectady, NY 39 (tie) $55,290

Remember, as you scroll through websites and skim the “Top Liberal Arts Colleges” lists, it’s most important that you find the best Liberal Arts College for you.

What kinds of jobs do liberal arts majors get?

graphic artist working on marketing collaterals

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. “Liberal arts majors are as competitive as any other student entering the job market,” assures Williams.

Peter Osgood director of admission at Harvey Mudd College (CA) says that one reason for this is that liberal arts disciplines require the student to think about write about and to understand a broad range of topics from many perspectives. “They have to come to some generalizations and realizations about the material they are studying rather than simply learning how to do a specific task,” says Osgood. “Since technology moves society along at a faster and faster pace the more ‘practical’ education is more likely to become obsolete sooner. Liberal arts disciplines better prepare the student for change.”

As Osgood explains 40 years ago few could not have anticipated a world in which the Internet existed or that one could use a portable device to call a friend text or tweet (terms that did not exist). “The only place to watch a movie was in a cinema not a cell phone,” he says. “Now that my own children are in high school they can’t imagine what innovations will occur by the time they hit the middle of life. Rather than having my children focus their learning on something transitory like how to use certain kinds of computer languages or communications strategies that may become obsolete I am convinced that they will have longer more productive careers by understanding people and adapting the technical skills to that knowledge.”

“Liberal arts graduates regularly obtain positions in a multitude of settings many of which do not seem — at first glance — to be connected to their majors,” explains Maria J. de la Camara, dean of Benedictine University’s College of Liberal Arts. “A number of well known CEOs majored in liberal arts fields and became leaders of major corporations.”

How does a liberal arts degree fare against more specialized degrees?

bilingual teacher teaching english class

According to Williams liberal arts majors are “more likely” than their counterparts to have at least one year of professional experience through an internship or to travel abroad at least once during their enrollment because the nature of the major leads students to pursue opportunities in their areas of interest while continuing their studies.

“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,” adds Williams.

William Brown Jr., vice president of enrollment at Lebanon Valley College believes liberal arts majors are among the most “work-ready” graduates. “At most liberal arts colleges students will receive a balance between professional preparation and broad intellectual growth. Students start their working career with solid pre-professional preparation in their field as well as experience across a wide curriculum. Specific skills that most liberal arts grads ‘take to work’ include critical thinking and the ability to communicate effectively verbally as well as in writing.”

Cynthia Favre career counselor at Gustavus Adolphus College (MN) concedes that marketing a liberal arts degree is more challenging than some other educational programs. “The good news is that liberal arts candidates are well prepared to do this,” she says. “The very . . . skills they develop through their college experience are those needed for successful engagement with the job search process.”

“The national research advises us that while liberal arts students may be slightly slower in securing the first job they advance and are retained at a higher rate than those more narrowly educated,” says McGillin.

Kogler explains the reason for this: “Since most people change professions in their lifetime . . . it’s smart to be adaptable. Studies in the liberal arts . . . give students greater flexibility more skills and better marketability.”

Liberal arts majors may also be more creative says Williams which will help them in the job market. “[They] generally take creative unconventional approaches to solving problems and they are more likely to be employed in positions where they have a creative or intellectual connection to the work. These skills are transferable to any industry.”

How do you know if a liberal arts major is right for you?

Public Relations Specialist curating products

If you feel passionately about a subject such as psychology or economics your choice of major may be clear(as long as you don’t let fears of “impracticality” get in your way). But if you’re unsure or undecided a liberal arts major is a good choice because it won’t limit you to a prescribed subject or career.

“High school students don’t typically have enough resources or experience to determine what their lifelong career interest will be,” says Kogler. “By attending a liberal arts college you have permission to explore reflect and ask what your passion is. Once you’ve determined your passion choosing a major and finding a career will be much easier.”

“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.”

“A successful career requires that you continually develop your skills and understanding often in areas that aren’t your specialty,” says Brad Andrews, vice president for enrollment and student life at Carthage College in Kenosha Wis. “Liberal arts study provides both general and career-specific knowledge along with tools that help you learn more effectively create new ideas and readily adapt to change throughout your life.”

“Talk to as many teachers employers and guidance counselors as you can,” says Brown. “Then meet with some college representatives (admission staff). These conversations will help bring you to an understanding of the possibilities for you.”

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.

Ready to start your journey?
Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.