Liberal arts is often the laughing stock of college degrees. Memes about it abound on the Internet.
In one of them, a liberal arts graduate is pictured on his graduation day with the caption: “Achieves liberal arts degree. Continues career as janitor.”
Another shows a hip-looking young protestor complaining there are no jobs for college graduates: she majored in 12th century English poetry.
Yet another meme shows a well-to-do businessman saying: “I don’t usually talk to liberal arts majors. But when I do, I usually order large fries.”
Why do liberal arts degrees have to suffer such putdowns? Do they deserve the bad press? Does a liberal arts education totally let down the graduates in finding jobs? Are these degrees worthless?
We explore these questions, but first we touch upon the basics.
In ancient Greece and Rome, a liberal arts education was considered essential for anyone in public life. Such an education readied individuals for debate, the skills to serve in courts and on juries, and even perform military service.
Early liberal arts education covered grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
The initial years of “liberal education” helped people focus on later studies in philosophy and theology and made graduates virtuous, ethical, knowledgeable, and articulate.
A liberal arts education in the modern times usually consists of programs that provide exposure to the student to a number of humanities-related subjects such as literature and philosophy.
However, today, liberal arts encompasses a wide range of subjects under an expansive sweep.
A typical liberal arts course is interdisciplinary and can include varied subjects under the categories of humanities (art, literature, philosophy, music, theater, classical languages, modern languages, religion, ethics); social sciences (history, politics, psychology, law, sociology, gender studies, economics, anthropology); natural sciences (archaeology, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physics, zoology); and formal sciences (mathematics, statistics, logic).
A liberal arts education can mean a degree in just one of the subjects under these categories, too, such as a BA in Literature or a BSc in Biology.
Rather than teaching a specific set of skills, a liberal arts program makes the student well-rounded, provides broader perspectives, and imparts critical thinking and communication skills.
The use of the terms “liberal arts” and “humanities” interchangeably in the modern context has led to some confusion.
But while the humanities are part of liberal arts, all liberal arts subjects are not part of the humanities.
Liberal arts pursues the study of the human being, the physical world that we live in, and the natural laws that govern us.
The humanities examine the state of the human being, addressing the human condition and the question, “what makes us human.”
The humanities and the liberal arts often go together.
At the unveiling of iPad 2, Steve Jobs stressed the importance of liberal arts and the humanities combining with each other:
It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.
This marriage of science and humanities gives great results.
Some technology and business leaders who majored in liberal arts and humanities serve as examples: YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki (history and literature); Airbnb founder Brian Chesky (fine arts); and Alibaba chief executive Jack Ma (English), to name but a few.
The admissions offices of schools usually do the first shortlisting of applicants based on test scores and GPAs. Admissions officials and professors then sort out applications that meet the basic requirements.
Test scores and transcripts are important, but admissions offices have to limit their intake based on the number of seats available for courses.
The first-come, first-served principle is used at many colleges, and so it may be a good idea to apply as early as possible.
The higher number of schools you apply for, the better your chances—a choice of six schools is usually advised—but you need the time and energy to apply as well as money for the application fee.
The requirements for liberal arts degrees are as follows.
Many schools have set a minimum GPA of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale.
You require some substantial time to fill in the applications. Don’t do a rush job.
Submit previous transcripts from your high school and any other college that you attended.
Most schools would want you to provide one or two recommendation letters. Some schools may ask you to have the recommenders send their letters directly, often electronically, to the admissions office.
Most schools may require your test scores. For undergraduate courses, schools typically ask for your SAT or ACT scores.
Application fees vary between schools, but it may be around $40.
Although liberal arts education has its origins in Europe, the center of liberal arts education today is the US, with hundreds of schools providing programs.
An undergraduate degree consists of four years of full-time study and associate degrees consist of one-year programs. After completing the degree, students often move on to graduate or professional schools.
Only a few countries in Europe teach liberal arts as a degree program today. They include the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany, which have more than one institution teaching liberal arts degree programs.
The main advantage of a liberal arts degree is that you acquire knowledge and skills in a range of subjects or vocations rather than in only one or two.
It prepares you for a specialized graduate program and for work and a career in a range of sectors.
It also exposes you to many subjects, enabling you to select one or two for specialization. The study of a wide variety of subjects makes you more adaptable for a better career and teaches you to live and work with others.
A liberal arts degree opens up many career paths in education and academia (research, teaching), arts (photography, commercial art, graphic design), business (entrepreneur, store manager, sales person), marketing (advertising, copywriting, public relations), publishing (journalism, news editing), and political science (politics, public policy, law). Other careers include finance (banker, accountant, financial analyst), biology (research assistant, healthcare), environment (law, policy), law (detective, police official), and social service (counseling, NGOs).
A liberal arts education imparts a number of skills including analytical and problem-solving skills, research skills, oral and written communication skills, reflective reading skills, numerical skills, time-management skills, leadership skills, adaptability, ethical decision-making skills, self-confidence and self-awareness, foreign languages and cross-cultural skills, and sensitivity to others.
The average annual salary of someone with a bachelor’s degree in liberal education was $61,000 in 2018 in the US, according to Payscale.
Depending on the sector and level, graduates may earn $61,000-$88,000 in positions ranging from marketing manager to human resources director. Salary may vary a few thousand dollars depending on the place of posting.
However, liberal arts graduates with postgraduate degrees in which they specialize in fields and sectors earn considerably higher salaries.
For example, economists may earn $40,000-$200,000, archeologists $40,000-$170,000, sociologists $55,000-$97,000, psychologists $67,000-$90,000, lawyers ($60,000-$150,000), and international relations experts ($49,000-$114,000), to mention only a few careers.
Certainly, liberal arts graduates earn less than their STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) counterparts in their first jobs or earlier career. This is probably why liberal arts degrees have a bad name.
But they make up for this and even outdo some high-earning professions after a decade or more of work experience.
For example, petroleum engineering graduates earn around $94,000 five years after leaving college, the highest salary at that level of experience for recent graduates tracked by Payscale.
They are followed by physician assistant graduates ($88,000) and metallurgy engineering graduates ($75,000). After ten years in the field, petroleum engineers, physical assistants, and metallurgy engineers make about $105,000-$107,000.
But liberal arts graduates claimed an average annual salary of $134,000 with a decade’s experience.
The annual pay of graduates of social sciences such as economics, history, and anthropology can go from $67,000 to $176,000 in ten years. However, these salaries of liberal graduates are those who attended top-tier universities.
As at least a few graduates have found, liberal arts degrees sometimes fail to provide specialization for specific careers. They are forced to find employment in unconnected fields such as real estate or sales.
Job data on employment growth and salary from private surveys, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Department of Labor often paints a grim picture of career prospects for at least some liberal arts graduates.
The lack of employment forces them to default on loans and burdens them financially from a very young age—another reason for the poor reputation of liberal arts degrees.
Right or wrong, degrees in communications (for careers as newspaper reporters, correspondents, editors), psychology (behavioral disorder counselor, psychiatric technician), theater arts (actor), fashion design (fashion designing, merchandising), sociology (social worker, correctional officer, correctional treatment specialist), and liberal arts and fine arts (musician, animation specialist, sculptor) are often mentioned as among the worst programs to opt for.
A blogger, a liberal arts graduate from a US university, writes about the “features” of a “worthless” degree.
Among the telltale signs are, to him at least, that the degree program is usually all about learning soft skills. It claims to “prepare” you for graduate studies, and it contains absolutely no math.
The course matter is usually full of “conspiracy theories,” and the degree is useful only to teach the subject to other students of the same subject (for example, “majoring in Anthropology so that you can teach Anthropology to Anthropology majors”). Some of these degrees also claim to help the graduate “to help other people.”
The blogger adds that in the 1960s, when only 15 percent of the US population had college degrees, it might have been possible for an English language major to find a white-collar job, but not these days, when over 40 percent are graduates and employers are looking for usable skills.
He says that a job seeker goes to college to improve his career prospects and not just to widen his perspective and critical thinking skills.
Many “useful majors” provide all these advantages, so why not go for them instead of a “liberal education”? he asks.
Countering this view is another liberal arts graduate, who says she’s glad that she got a “worthless” degree.
To the charge that liberal arts degrees are useless, she says all degrees are so if you don’t or can’t apply what you’ve learned. Moreover, picking a wrong career that only pays a salary, high or low, makes people frustrated.
This writer says that you can carve your own path and succeed if you have talent and passion and put in some hard work. Following someone else’s agenda can lead to lifelong regrets, and you risk never being able to achieve your full potential.
If you adopt a wholly materialistic view to career choice, you may end up with the question, “What if you had been bold enough to follow your passion?”
In balance, a liberal arts degree at any school may not make you the most sought-after job candidate. You would do well to study the job market for your favorite major and make a choice depending upon your objectives and circumstances.
But remember that innovations are forcing changes on the job market. More “marketable” degrees such as engineering may not guarantee a lucrative career for all time to come, and jobs that we haven’t even heard of until now may emerge as the new money-spinners.
A liberal arts degree, like any other degree, may or may not pave the way to your career success, but it will likely reduce the usual disconnect between the major and the job in whatever field you end up.
The wider perspectives you acquire during your liberal arts course might make you a better professional in your field. Or the creative-thinking skills you have developed may make you a successful entrepreneur. Or, further, your decision-making or critical-thinking skills may make you a leader.
Contrary to reports, many employers look for a liberal arts degree in a CV. It tells them that the applicant likely has well-developed communication skills and problem-solving skills, can work in a team, and knows about time management.
Employers say that you can teach someone about financial statements, but it is hard to impart writing skills and people skills.
Liberal arts majors are more likely to have a broader mind and take a creative approach to issues. So, liberal arts graduates have a lot more going for them that they and others think.
The best way to go about choosing is perhaps to identify your own aims and interests and natural strengths and weaknesses and try to acquire a degree that will help you reach your target, follow your passion, and improve your pluses. If it’s liberal arts, so be it.
Wasn’t it Confucius who asked the question, “Who said philosophy doesn’t pay?” Don’t always worry about money. And remember, there’s such a thing as a failed engineering graduate, too.