What You Can Do With a Liberal Arts Degree Liberal arts students learn a wide range of skills that prepare them for jobs ranging from advertising to web development.
A COMMON KNOCK AGAINST liberal arts degrees is that they lack overall value and don't easily lead to job opportunities. Some colleges and universities have retreated from liberal arts by cutting such programs.
But despite dwindling support at some schools, liberal arts advocates are all in.
"A liberal arts degree is the most pragmatic degree one can pursue in a world with increasing uncertainty and volatility," Emily Griffen, director of the Loeb Center for Career Exploration and Planning at Amherst College in Massachusetts, wrote in an email. "It is designed to equip you with the adaptability that will be critical to navigating many decades of professional life in rapidly evolving landscapes. It is more worth it than ever."
Especially so, she adds, as new jobs emerge and some occupations age into obsolescence.
Is a Liberal Arts Degree Worth the Cost?
Liberal arts critics abound. Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson recently labeled a communications degree from a mid-tier liberal arts college "totally and utterly worthless," and former President Barack Obama questioned the value of an art history degree in 2014.
But liberal arts advocates say such rhetoric reflects public notions about education as purely a vehicle to find a job rather than as a means to acquire knowledge, challenge one's preconceptions about the world and open minds.
"I think there's a prevailing national rhetoric that's calling into question the value of higher education in general but liberal education in particular, because they see the humanities and arts taking place within the ivory tower as a willful disconnect from the practical matters of everyday life, and the sole purpose of higher education today is viewed as employability," says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
To Pasquerella's point, public confidence in U.S. higher education "has decreased significantly since 2015," according to Gallup polling. And in a rare sign of bipartisanship, both Republicans and Democrats have expressed that higher education in the U.S. is "going in the wrong direction" even as they disagree about why, per Pew Research Center data.
Even so, liberal arts advocates aren't shaken. And a recent study out of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce shows that despite questions about long-term value, the liberal arts can pay off handsomely.
The study, which looked at the return on investment at 4,500 U.S. colleges and universities, found that the median return on investment of liberal arts colleges after 40 years "is nearly $200,000 higher than the median for all colleges." It's worth noting that liberal arts colleges generate a disproportionately high number of liberal arts graduates compared with other types of schools.
Likewise, career earnings of liberal arts college graduates were slightly higher than those of counterparts who went to engineering and technology-focused schools as well as those who earned degrees from four-year business and management schools, according to the study.
What Liberal Arts Majors Study
The term liberal arts has evolved over time, says Anne Wise, director of the National Arts & Sciences Initiative at The Phi Beta Kappa Society, an academic honor society that is committed to the liberal arts and sciences.
"It really covers what some people would describe as a classical education," Wise says.
Pasquerella ticks off a list of majors such as history, philosophy, music, religious studies and social sciences as examples. But students at liberal arts institutions can also study topics like biology and chemistry.
"Liberal arts simply means the study of a wide variety of subjects, designed to encourage flexible thinking," Griffen says. "The term 'liberal' refers to freedom, or liberation, of thought, not the current term often associated with political orientation. The term 'arts' is actually derived from the Latin for art or skill (ars) - so it is actually a word for 'skill' and not solely 'art' in the way we typically associate the word 'art' with painting or music."
As the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts it: "Generally speaking, (liberal arts) is designed to prepare students for a variety of career options, rather than for a specific occupation."
Liberal Arts Degree Jobs
But what kind of jobs can a bachelor's degree in liberal arts open up? The pathway isn't always clear. For example, a philosophy major is not going to graduate into a role of philosopher, Griffen notes, as that job title doesn't exist.
"Each discipline actually gives you a particular framework for creativity, problem solving, communication and other skills that then can be applied to an endless range of career fields and jobs," Griffen says.
Below is a list of potential jobs for liberal arts graduates. The list is populated with examples cited on college websites, as well as job boards, and offers a snapshot of available opportunities:
- Advertising representative
- Events director
- Financial analyst
- Graphic designer
- Human resources specialist
- Marketing specialist
- Public relations specialist
- Project manager
- Research analyst
- Social worker
- Technical writer
- Web developer
Adam Mendler, CEO of The Veloz Group, an e-commerce and technology solutions company, says liberal arts graduates often make great job candidates.
"I have come to learn that most learning takes place in the real world and on the job," Mendler wrote in an email. "With that in mind, I am far less focused on the hard skills a college graduate brings to the table than I am on that person's capabilities and the likelihood that he or she can excel in our environment. Liberal arts graduates tend to be interesting, interested, worldly and thoughtful, and in turn, well-suited to grow in a wide variety of roles."
Additionally, Mendler sees critical thinking and problem-solving skills as key traits in liberal arts graduates.
Keys to Success as a Liberal Arts Student
Wise encourages students to connect early in their college career with professors who can be great mentors. Other suggestions include conducting undergraduate research and finding a quality internship to help students build skills while in school. And students who are concerned about job opportunities should connect with career services early on to develop a plan.
Griffen says that those in the liberal arts tend to earn less money upon graduation than their counterparts in technical or vocational training, but those salaries accelerate later, especially as liberal arts graduates assume leadership positions. According to a 2017 BLS analysis of liberal arts graduates in various fields, full-time workers under 35 typically earned a median annual wage between $35,750 and $52,450.
She also contends that liberal arts students are better prepared to ride out the coming sea change of automation.
"Liberal arts majors pull ahead because they have that preparation to tackle the complex, multi-faceted challenges of leadership, managing across many functional areas, or surviving dramatic shifts in job market needs," Griffen says. "They are also under less threat of their job prospects declining due to automation, as the skills they bring to workplaces are not the skills that can be replaced by robots."