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6 Benefits of a Liberal Arts College Degree in the 21st Century

After a decade of tepid economic growth coupled with soaring college tuition costs, many are concerned about the value of a college education. Undergraduates feel increasingly pressured to choose majors that will lead as directly as possible to well-paying careers, which has fueled parents and policymakers to push students into vocational, business, and STEM (science, technology, education, and math) fields and away from the humanities. Subjects that were once considered the heart and soul of education – such as philosophy, art, music, languages, and literature – have been deemed “impractical” at best and, at worst, “worthless” and a “waste of time.”

Yet surprisingly, many employers in so-called STEM-heavy industries such as tech are intentionally choosing to hire liberal arts grads – and at even higher rates than computer science and engineering majors. Liberal arts majors are sought by many employers for possessing the type of skills 93% of them seek, according to a 2014 Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) study. These include interpersonal, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

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Here’s how a liberal arts education could help you succeed in today’s business landscape.

What Is a Liberal Arts Education?

Although it’s often confused with a degree in the arts or humanities, a liberal arts degree encompasses all academic disciplines. Liberal arts degrees are multi-disciplinary and include the natural sciences, social sciences, mathematics, and the humanities. In other words, a liberal arts degree is a well-rounded degree.

I, for example, am a graduate of a liberal arts college, and though my undergraduate major, Criminal Justice, was intended to prepare me for a specific career path, I also studied statistics, geology, history, literature, and world religions.

Because liberal arts degrees include many disciplines, they often grant no clear pathway from degree to career, which is why critics have frequently condemned them. For example, a typical liberal arts degree such as philosophy does not guarantee a specific job after graduation the way a degree in nursing or accounting does.

However, that doesn’t mean a liberal arts degree won’t prepare you for a career. According to a number of educational and professional experts, including Cecilia Gaposchkin, an Associate Professor of Medieval History and Assistant Dean of Pre-Major Advising at Dartmouth College, the liberal arts don’t prepare you for a single career; they prepare you for a multitude of careers.

Gaposchkin argues that the skills developed in a liberal arts program are transferable to any context or career. Because the standard liberal arts curriculum is designed to ensure students master critical thinking – researching, interpreting, writing, learning, and synthesizing complex areas of knowledge – across disciplines, it prepares students to tackle the specialized tasks of their professional careers.

And, despite the ongoing trend to turn students away from these types of degrees, many employers agree.

The Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education

Although the liberal arts encompass math and science, the majors that typically invoke the loudest condemnation are those in the humanities, while math and science are often praised for their marketability. So, we’ll focus primarily on the humanities here. With that in mind, here are some of the benefits of obtaining a liberal arts degree.

1. You Can Do Anything

You Can Do Anything College Students

George Anders, author of “You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree,” argues that, far from making you useless to the workforce, a liberal arts degree empowers you to take on just about anything. For example, an English major can thrive in sales or an anthropology major in the new field of user research. A classics major might find themselves in management consulting or a philosophy major in high-stakes investing.

Anders argues that the career options are infinite for those with a liberal arts degree. They include journalism, public relations, law, politics, publishing, fundraising, marketing, and real estate, among many others.

According to Anders, “A close look at the data shows good news on two fronts. First, the U.S. economy has created at least 626,000 jobs – and perhaps as many as 2.3 million – since 2012 in what I’m broadly calling ‘the rapport sector’ or the ‘empathy economy.'” Building rapport through empathy is something liberal arts majors train in, whether they’re seeking to understand soldiers in ancient Athens or relate to the character of Jay Gatsby. According to the AAC&U study, four out of five employers think students should acquire a broad knowledge of the liberal arts.

Liberal Arts Grads in Tech

The current tech boom is resulting in an even higher, not lesser, demand for liberal arts grads. A 2015 LinkedIn study found that tech companies are hiring liberal arts grads at faster rates than those with computer science and engineering degrees. That’s because software developers aren’t the only workers they need; they also need those who can humanize technology and make it usable and appealing for everyone.

Anders gives the example of the online restaurant reservation company OpenTable. Although the original purpose of the app was to create an easy way for customers to make restaurant reservations, OpenTable makes much of its money selling customer behavior data to restaurants. This data can alert restaurant owners to trends that can help them improve their businesses. For example, it can tell them that their business is down on Tuesday nights or that they get a lot of cancellations on Valentine’s Day.

It doesn’t take many data analysts and software engineers to manage the system and crunch the numbers; OpenTable needs only 14 such experts nationwide. However, it employs over 100 restaurant relations managers who travel across the United States to meet with the people who run high-end restaurants. Analyzing data is one thing; getting restaurateurs to accept the data and put it into use is another. Restaurant relations requires a different set of skills for which liberal arts majors, Anders argues, are well-suited. Those who have majored in subjects such as English, psychology, or philosophy often excel in the interpersonal and communication skills necessary to win restaurateurs’ trust.

Michael Litt, co-founder and CEO of the video game marketing platform Vidyard, notes on Fast Company that developers make up only 15% to 25% of his company. He says, “Think about the other roles that deal with developing and marketing tech products and services: Sales teams need to understand human relationships. Marketing teams have to understand what gets people excited and why. Internally, our HR teams need to know how to build a community and culture so the company can continue to thrive.”

2. You Have the Skills Employers Want

Think Outside The Box Critical Thinking Problem Solving

AAC&U’s survey revealed that 80% of executives thought students should have a “broad knowledge” of the liberal arts, regardless of their major, and 74% of executives would recommend a liberal arts education to their children or the child of someone they know.

Additionally, the 2016 Job Outlook survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that hiring professionals increasingly prioritize the skills developed in liberal arts institutions. The skills and traits they specifically look for include:

  • Leadership skills (80.1%)
  • The ability to work well as part of a team (78.9%)
  • Excellent written communication skills (70.2%)
  • Problem-solving ability (70.2%)
  • Excellent verbal communication skills (68.9%)

These highly sought-after skills are often termed “soft skills” to distinguish them from “hard skills,” which refer to the technical and occupational skills needed to perform a specific job. Of the 2,000 business leaders surveyed in 2018 by LinkedIn, 57% prioritized soft skills over hard skills. Their rationale is that one can always learn technical skills on the job, but soft skills can translate to any job or career path and are the most important aspects of being a teammate and leader.

Unfortunately, thanks to a decades-long trend to de-emphasize and de-fund the humanities, many experts believe students aren’t adequately trained in the kinds of skills hardest to teach on the job – critical thinking and clear writing – and employers are noticing. According to a 2018 survey of 500 senior executives conducted by Adecco, 44% think Americans lack soft skills, including communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.

An increased focus on the liberal arts could lead to workers with more developed soft skills. According to Randall Stross, a Professor of Business at San Jose State University and author of “A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees,” “If a student has a deep interest in a major and works hard, then he or she will acquire skills that are quite useful in the workplace. I’m not speaking as a humanities professor who hopes this is true but as a business school professor who has interviewed a number of recent graduates and has followed the progression of their careers.”

Here a few ways a broad liberal arts education can help develop the kinds of skills employers want.

People Skills

According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, people skills are among those most valued in high-demand, high-compensation jobs. As Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini says, “I’ve seen many an actuary and many an engineer who are brilliant, but they fail in their ability to communicate or commercialize an idea because they can’t relate to the people they’re dealing with.”

As the name suggests, the humanities – regardless of whether you’re studying history, literature, philosophy, or anthropology – are the study of people. When you take courses in any humanities discipline, you use different methods to learn about individuals, including yourself, and groups of people. That includes examining your feelings and others’ feelings, developing an appreciation of others, and learning to entertain different viewpoints. These skills can help an employee create rapport with teammates or customers by embracing different perspectives, as well as helping them use language to convince others of their viewpoint.

While science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are unquestionably useful skills in today’s workplace, the humanities provide an added way of viewing issues. Leaders and decision-makers who can consider a broader, more diverse range of ideas will be better able to run businesses and governments and react to difficult situations.

Communication Skills

One part of communication is good writing, or the ability to present an idea in a clear, direct manner. In order to complete an academic paper, students must develop a thesis and then prove their viewpoint with well-thought-out ideas supported by evidence. They learn to analyze and critique their own ideas and then use language to convince others of those ideas. Though students may never write these kinds of papers after graduation, the skills required to complete them are highly sought after by employers.

A liberal arts education also encourages sharing and listening to others’ ideas, which helps develop students’ oral communication skills. They hone the ability to read a room and speak in front of a group of people clearly and persuasively. These skills are crucial in the workplace.

Analytical Skills

Anders claims that one of the skills most developed by the humanities is analytical skills, “[w]hether it’s decoding a sonnet, or taking apart a fragment of ancient history, or looking at something that an archeologist has unearthed. If you make it all the way through a liberal arts major and do the senior-caliber work, you’re going to be very good at those kinds of analytical skills, and those are incredibly transferable.”

The ability to analyze data, especially, has become a crucial skill in today’s workplace, and being able to look at large data sets or blocks of text and give them meaning is something in which humanities students are well-versed.

Creativity & Innovation

Innovative thinking is another essential skill liberal arts students develop. An English major may study a story, looking for its underlying meaning while simultaneously understanding the text as a conversation between the reader and the author that reveals the perspectives and biases of both. A history major may be asked to look at world events through the perspectives of different groups of people with an understanding of how “history” changes with the teller.

Liberal arts students are regularly asked to come up with new ideas and perspectives and to challenge the status quo. Businesses thrive on innovation and change, so employers covet workers who can think outside the box.

Problem-Solving

From political science to sociology to psychology, humanities students are well-versed in all kinds of human problems, and their day-to-day studies often include intense discussions about potential solutions to individual, local, and even global issues.

According to Anders, much of the humanities’ focus is on encountering various unknowns and variables and figuring out how to fit all the pieces together and find a solution. He argues that this is why “most people in political careers [have] liberal arts degrees. That ability to balance what different elements of society want is not an engineering problem. It’s something that needs an eye for humanity.”

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves challenging commonly held conceptions, including your own. When you think critically, you assess a situation by analyzing the problem and taking all factors into consideration, including your biases and limited perspectives. A broad education encourages students to think deeply about a wide range of topics. They analyze problems and consider a variety of ways to solve them.

Many argue that, because of its multidisciplinary nature, a liberal arts degree isn’t a technical or vocational degree, but rather a degree in critical thinking. Because a liberal arts degree exposes you to different perspectives and ways of thinking, it not only gives you the ability to embrace multiple perspectives but also to understand the limitations of different kinds of thinking. It teaches you how to use and apply your thinking analytically, strategically, and creatively – skills that are highly valued in today’s workplace.

3. You Can’t Easily Be Replaced by a Robot

The push to focus on STEM to the exclusion of the humanities has been attributed by many to the fear that robots are taking over. That fear isn’t unfounded; the World Economic Forum (WEF) has predicted that half of all U.S. jobs may be lost to automation as soon as 2025. And blue-collar jobs aren’t the only ones at risk; if a job can be automated, within the next few decades, it likely will be. Already, we’re seeing robots picking stocks, doing legal research, and even writing articles.

In an age of artificial intelligence, higher education – especially in the humanities – is more important than ever. Joseph E. Aoun, the president of Northeastern, argues in his book “Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” that changes in higher education are needed to meet today’s new realities, and that doesn’t mean ignoring the humanities.

Many experts agree that the last jobs robots will replace are those that require the most humanity, making the humanities the 21st-century curriculum for a robot-proof education. Though robots may, for example, replace some routine medical jobs, there’s no substitute for the ability to discuss your medical concerns with a real, live doctor who can express empathy.

Likewise, though many online courses don’t need to be taught by live teachers, it’s unlikely parents will want robots replacing their kids’ elementary school teachers. It’s difficult to imagine a young child with a scraped knee finding comfort in the arms of a robot, or a robot skillfully mediating a student’s conflict with a classmate. After all, if we want our kids to grow up to be good humans, it only makes sense that they’re taught by humans.

MIT professors Erik Bynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in their book “The Second Machine Age” that today’s tech surge will inspire a new kind of workplace where technology takes care of routine tasks so people can concentrate on what they do best: exercising empathy and generating creative ideas.

4. You’re Able to Stay Ahead of the Curve

Stay Ahead Of The Curve

Numerous reports show the world of work evolving faster than ever. With the rapid development of new technologies and economic uncertainties, fear of the future has many heading for what seem to be safe bets. That includes a focus on vocational training and other direct education-to-career pathways. While there may be an immediate benefit and an easily discernible ROI in such choices, taking a longer-term view may prove even more beneficial in such uncertain times.

As Stross tells Inside Higher Ed, as challenging as it seems to make a case for the liberal arts now, “imagine how difficult it would have been in the depths of the Great Depression when the unemployment rate was 16 percent and headed for 24 percent.” Demand for liberal arts majors disappeared in this period as more people focused on vocational training.

Yet even at the height of the Great Depression, William Tolley, in his 1931 inaugural address as the president of Allegheny College, made a case for a liberal arts education: “Specialists are needed in all vocations, but only as long as their vocations last, and vocations have a tendency now to disappear almost overnight.” Tolley argued that in a rapidly shifting world, the broad knowledge covered by the liberal arts is “the finest vocational training any school can offer.”

The Importance of Adaptability

As highly valued as coders and data analysts are currently, the trend may be toward fewer of these jobs in the future. According to the WEF, 65% of children entering elementary school today will hold jobs that have not yet been created. With a broad, well-rounded education, you can easily switch from one field to another, which may be a crucial ability in the 21st century when many of today’s jobs no longer exist.

To succeed in the new economy, college graduates will have to apply new ideas, think across disciplines, and learn to anticipate trends. In a 2017 survey, Pew Research Center observed, “Workers of the future will learn to deeply cultivate and exploit creativity, collaborative activity, abstract and systems thinking, complex communication, and the ability to thrive in diverse environments.” These are all traits cultivated in the liberal arts.

2017 study shows that while students who complete vocational and career-oriented programs have better short-term employment outcomes, they struggle to keep up with industry changes and lack the necessary skills to adapt. Not being pigeon-holed into a single vocation or career makes liberal arts grads adaptable and may be why so many successful grads appear to have such varied career paths.

5. Your Earning Potential Isn’t as Bleak as You Think

Young Girl Earnings Income Cash

Many an aspiring English major has faced concerned parents asking, “What are you going to do with that degree?” However, their futures aren’t as bleak as some may worry.

According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, the average unemployment rate for new graduates across all of the humanities is 9%, which is on par with computer science (9.1%) and not too far off from all majors combined (7.9%).

Moreover, while research shows that starting job salaries for liberal arts grads are, on average, lower than those of pre-professional degrees such as nursing or accounting, this is only true of starting salaries. Earnings data from PayScale shows that many liberal arts majors achieve strong mid-career incomes that close the gap with other majors. The Brooking’s Institution’s Hamilton project analyzed the lifetime earnings of each major of study and found that computer science majors earned a nice $3.2 million, but history majors averaged $3.75 million, and philosophy majors earned $3.76 million over their lifetimes.

So, while liberal arts grads may not start strong, over time, their earnings often surge. That’s especially true for students who pursue advanced degrees – history majors may become highly paid lawyers, for example – but advanced degrees aren’t necessary for high earnings. A 2017 study reported in Inside Higher Ed found a strong correlation between a broad undergraduate education and financial success. The study concluded that those who study the arts and humanities in addition to their primary field of study are 31% to 72% more likely than others to hold high-level positions and earn over $100,000.

Ultimately, liberal arts graduates may start off slower than their peers, but the skills they develop in their majors help them become better leaders who are more prepared for collaboration and sharing complex thoughts with colleagues, which gives them an advantage when it comes to scoring promotions and climbing the career ladder.

6. It Can Help You Stand Out in A Crowd

Stand Out From A Crowd Blue Light Stick Figure

If you study for a career in a narrow academic area, particularly one in high demand, you may have a hard time finding a job. In a field such as computer science, you could end up facing steep competition in an overcrowded market. That’s why graduates with business majors currently face the highest unemployment rates; there are simply so many of them.

So, how do you stand out in an overcrowded market? One way to distinguish yourself from the competition is a well-rounded education. If, for example, you’re interested in a career in technology, go for a computer science degree, but make sure it includes a well-rounded liberal arts curriculum. Or, consider double-majoring in a humanities field like English to hone your writing skills.

Bracken Darrell, CEO of Logitech, suggests in Business Insider that English majors who can think and write well are an “endangered species” for which there is high demand. But perhaps the rarest of all is the employee who can straddle technology and the humanities. Someone who can code and speak in plain English is crucial in today’s marketplace.

This was the discovery of Emma Williams, the general manager of Bing Studios at Microsoft. While she was studying for a Ph.D. in Scandinavian mythology, her younger brother introduced her to the UNIX operating system. To her, studying code was no different from studying any other language, of which she already knew 13. She quickly became addicted and, long story short, now heads up Bing Studios. Her advice for those seeking a career in tech is to go wide, not narrow, when it comes to their education so they “have a broader understanding [of different subjects] and a better set of capabilities than just having a computer science degree.”

You can only increase your competitive advantage by finding ways to maximize your soft skills along with your hard skills.

Final Word

In a world of uncertain economic conditions and a rapidly changing technological landscape, 21st-century students may be best-served by pursuing an education in STEM and the humanities, or what has been dubbed “STEAM” for science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. When the future is uncertain, and new jobs emerge faster than we can conceive of them, the most successful people are those who have broadened their skill set with additional traits that give them an edge and help them adapt to change, as well as stand out in a crowded marketplace.

Admittedly, a broader focus may mean that some students need more support to determine an initial career direction, and colleges and universities will need to focus more intently on helping all students into careers with internship and networking opportunities. However, whether or not they take on a major with a defined career trajectory, students in all fields can benefit from taking as many liberal arts classes as possible. Adding a broad range of courses to your curriculum can help give you a competitive advantage.

Are you a liberal arts major? In what ways are you thinking of turning your educational interests into a career?

Sarah Graves
Sarah Graves, Ph.D. is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance, parenting, education, and creative entrepreneurship. She's also a college instructor of English and humanities. When not busy writing or teaching her students the proper use of a semicolon, you can find her hanging out with her awesome husband and adorable son watching way too many superhero movies.

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