In recent years a chorus of expert and “government official” voices has been steering students away from pursuing liberal arts degrees. These voices argue that in a competitive job market liberal arts degrees are impractical, don’t prepare graduates to secure good jobs and offer a low return on investment.
But it turns out students may want to tune out these voices. This is because the results of a substantial survey of employers suggests that an English, social science, philosophy or other liberal arts degrees may be as good or perhaps better for a students’ long-term career success.
The Association of American Colleges & Universities’ report “Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success,” found that 91 percent of employers surveyed agreed that for career success, “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major.”
The association’s study also found that by the peak earnings years (ages 56 to 60), liberal-arts graduates have higher earnings on average than people who pursued more narrowly defined areas of study.
When it comes to hiring recent graduates, the survey found employers most highly valued skills and knowledge that cut across academic majors, including written and oral communication, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings.
These most sought after skills and kinds of knowledge are developed in abundance along the path to earning a liberal arts degree. Liberal arts students are taught to become lifelong learners who are their own best teachers. They’re taught to take intellectual risks and to think across disciplines, to understand how the arts, humanities, and sciences inform, influence and enrich one another.
By connecting a mix of ideas and themes across academic disciplines, liberal-arts students learn to better reason and analyze. They can solve complex problems and know how to work in small groups with people unlike themselves. They also learn to expertly communicate their creativity and ideas.
Possessing broad, deep knowledge and skills and the ability to think flexibly and creatively is more important than ever before. Why? Because studies show that college graduates will likely change careers 15 times in their lives — 11 career of those before turning 40.
Using a narrow academic track to prepare students for one specific job can be risky because of how quickly the economy and the job market can change. To use a farming analogy, preparing for one specific job is similar to growing only one kind of crop. By diversifying one’s crops, the risk of a failed crop is spread across a variety of fields and this increases the likelihood of always having nourishing food on one’s table.
It’s kind of ironic that liberal arts education was not originally designed for employment purposes, considering the value placed on such an education by employers today. The liberal arts (Latin: artes liberales) are defined as those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for one to live their life as a free-thinking citizen.
It just so happens that the broad canvas of learning required in antiquity to create well-functioning citizens is also great preparation for being an effective, adaptable and successful employee today.
John McLaughlin graduated from the University of Maine at Augusta in 2012. He now serves as the associate director of enrollment services and recruiting, where he enjoys engaging his belief in the power of education at any age, particularly through helping adult learners successfully resume their academic journey.