The liberal arts college is a cornerstone of the American tertiary education system. Modeling themselves on the early colonial schools like Harvard and Yale, they proliferated in the second half of the 19th century, when more than 200 were founded. They were intended to give a generalist education and to produce rounded individuals, men and women of letters who could fit into most professions, specialist and non-specialist alike.
That’s more than just a theory. It’s my actual experience. Although I enrolled in Maryville University of St. Louis in 1999 to study actuarial science (yeah, we’re talking heavy math nerd here), I’m beyond grateful my professors and the university pushed me towards interdisciplinary inquiry. On their advice, for example, I traveled to Oxford during my senior year to learn a bit more about the Glorious Revolution. This subject wasn’t on any of the actuarial exams I would go on to take, but proved useful in rounding out my education. I don’t think it’s an accident that I was able to move successfully from actuary to lawyer to entrepreneur. Maryville gave me an excellent foundation to do whatever I choose.
In recent years, though, it has become commonplace to say that the day of the liberal arts has passed, and that the tech-heavy, digital future will require specialization. Graduates, this wisdom goes, will need career-specific education in fields like business, engineering and mathematics if they are to be successful and earn the sort of salary which would justify the expenditure of a college education. It sounds quaint in the modern workplace to talk about your deep analysis of Walt Whitman or the Indian Wars when your contemporaries are talking about their coding experience or their summer placement at JPMorgan.
This pressure away from the liberal arts and towards specialist subjects has come from both parents and educators, and it’s perfectly understandable. Everyone wants what’s best for students, and so with the best of intentions, those in charge are bending with the prevailing wind. But, if you look at the evidence, it’s far from conclusive. And the skills that liberal arts graduates acquire are highly prized, leading to long and fulfilling careers in the modern labor market.
Last winter, the labor market research company Emsi and the Strada Network education research group compiled a report on the skills that employers would value in the future, based on the employment history of more than 100 million men and women in the US and an analysis of 36 million vacancy notices on employment websites. The conclusions were noteworthy, both in terms of attractiveness to employers, achievable salaries, and career longevity.
The top-line figure is that 82 percent of graduates from four-year liberal arts courses are working. Some are pursuing further education. Very few are still seeking work. That’s pretty comforting for freshmen and sophomores inclined to fret about their futures. Not only that, but those in full-time employment earn $20,000 a year more than those without degrees, and those with advanced degrees earn another $20,000 on top of that.
There’s no doubt that specialist skills like those in STEM subjects do add value, but it can often lie in being employed for project work like design or engineering. By contrast, the ‘soft’ skills that liberal arts teach—communication, empathy, inquiry, analysis—have a lasting value across the corporate world, and are often qualities that specialists lack. Employers know this. Indeed, as David Deming recently noted in the appropriately titled opinion piece “In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure”, tech skills in demand today may become obsolete, and successful career will demand continuing learning, something you get by adding liberal arts to your STEM education.
The development of a technologically advanced and integrated world has increased, not diminished, the need for liberal arts training. Stereotypically we fear the replacement of human actors by artificial intelligence, but increasingly we are seeing the limits of AI and machine learning. These devices actually need to be taught how to interact in a human or quasi-human way, and the skills needed to teach them are, you’ve guessed it, liberal arts values like salesmanship, problem-solving, and communication with good old-fashioned humans.
To be brutally commercial for a moment, what this means is that attending a liberal arts college is still value for money. You will learn marketable skills and gain abilities that employers seek and on which they are willing to put a significant financial premium. For all but the super-wealthy, higher education is a monetary trade-off: will the price you have to pay for your college years be recouped and exceeded by what you earn as a direct result of it? The evidence from employers is pretty unequivocal: liberal arts remain a sound investment. The key is actually graduating. Employers don’t value a year or two of college, regardless of whether it was STEM, liberal arts, or something in between.
In sum, don’t be afraid of pursuing a liberal arts education. Or mix and match, like I did. It’ll be well worth your investment.
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