Why Get a Liberal Arts Degree? The Value

by UMaineCLASAdvisingCenter

In my last post, I addressed the popular misconception that a liberal arts degree will leave an individual poor and destitute. In this post, I want to address another popular misconception, that of job prospects. Popular opinion says that a student needs to major in a STEM field or get a business degree if they want to get a job. After all, looking at the business world, how many companies are really interested in hiring a history major or a sociology major when there are plenty of good business majors to be had? The real answer to that question turns popular opinion on its head.

In 2013, the Association of American College and Universities put out a study, ”It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.” What this study found is that employers are looking for a range of skills more than they’re looking for a specific degree. The vast majority (93%) of companies felt that the capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems was more important than their undergraduate major. Employers are looking for people who can demonstrate: critical thinking/analytical reasoning, the ability to analyze/solve complex problems, and have effective oral and written communication skills. And they’re looking for people who are innovative and creative.

The reality is that as much as it’s “common knowledge” that businesses are looking for business majors, a survey of articles on business-related websites show what skills these companies are looking for: critical thinking, problem solving, active listening, judgement and decision-making, dependability, communication, and computers. With the exception of computers, these skills are all the primary goals of a liberal arts education. For instance, at the University of Maine, a degree in Political Science teaches students “to think critically about the fundamental theories, principles, institutions, and practices of politics in their social and historical contexts.” Sociology, meanwhile, “helps you develop your skills in written and oral communication, critical thinking and problem solving, and research methods and data analysis,” plus provides knowledge of “social interaction and organizational behavior.” And Communication teaches students to “understand and critically evaluate human communication in their lives and in their careers.”

The fact of the matter is that liberal arts degrees can provide a solid basis upon which individuals can build most any career. First instance, let’s look at the General Management Admission Test (GMAT), which is generally required for admission into graduate management programs, such as MBAs. According to a report by the Graduate Management Admission Council, the undergraduate degrees that produced the top five mean GMAT scores from 2008-2012 were: 1) Physics, 2) Mathematics, 3) Engineering, 4) Other Engineering/Computer Science, and 5) Philosophy. Interestingly, four of the top five are STEM fields and one is a liberal arts degree. The top ten also includes liberal arts majors in Economics and Government. Business degrees in Finance (20th), Accounting (31st), Management (37th), and Marketing (41st) all fall lower on the list than such liberal arts degrees as History (11th), Anthropology (15th), English (16th), Art History (17th), and Political Science (19th). So clearly a degree in the liberal arts is not a drawback if you want to get a job in the business world.

We see a similar phenomenon for individuals taking the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) according to research out of the University of North Texas. Physics and Math take the top spot for average LSAT score, with Economics and Philosophy/Theology tied for second. In fact, seven of the top ten majors and nine of the top fifteen majors are all liberal arts degrees. So a liberal arts degree can actually be very beneficial if you want to go to law school.

So why is there such a common perception that liberal arts degrees are a waste of money? The problem is that students who graduate with these degrees don’t know how to market the skills they have learned. Just learning the skills doesn’t mean that the students know how to translate that ability onto a cover letter or resume. Instead of looking for a job that is looking for an English major, the student with the English degree should instead look for jobs seeking skills they have learned, such as critical reading and writing and communication. Many news articles, such as this one, and this one, and this one, all point to the need demonstrate how you can apply the skills you’ve learned to the career you’d like.

The truth is that a liberal arts degree offers a high degree of career freedom. Rather than learning a vocation, students learn how to learn any skill. They learn how to think and act on their own. Are there going to be reactionary employers who won’t look beyond a college major? Sure, but successful businesses look for skills, and so they will be open to any degree. So don’t fret over the major. But make sure to learn how to use it.