5 Significant advantages of liberal arts majors
The rising cost of college tuition leads many undergraduate students to feel a growing pressure to choose majors that will yield the quickest return on their investments. While attention on liberal arts is waning, there’s been a particular emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees.
This is a trend across much of the world. The Chinese government, for example, has plans to turn 42 universities into ‘world class’ institutions of science and technology. And in the UK, the government’s increased focus on STEM has corresponded to fewer students enrolling in courses like English and the arts.
But experts like Dr. Melanie Borrego, associate dean of undergraduate education and professor of English at University of Massachusetts Global, argue a liberal arts education can prepare students to become the types of employees organizations want to hire. In fact, employers in STEM industries are increasingly looking to bring liberal arts graduates aboard their teams.
“Many people have decided that the end goal of higher education is about earning the most money,” Dr. Borrego explains. “It’s not, and it never has been. The goal of higher education is to develop more aware, well-read, well-spoken and hopefully more empathetic human beings.”
Take a look at some of the recent studies and expert insights that dig into the true value of liberal arts majors in today’s workforce.
5 Benefits of liberal arts degrees
While many may attribute contemporary human problems to individuals not having their basic needs met, Dr. John Freed, professor of liberal studies at UMass Global, argues that it’s more complex than that.
Dr. Freed suggests that many contemporary human problems stem from ineffective communication and a lack of compassion. “Developing these skills is the prime directive of studying the liberal arts,” he adds.
He points out that neither Steve Jobs nor most other notable CEOs earned STEM degrees as undergraduates. In fact, many top-ranking CEOs once pursued liberal arts degrees. Consider the following five ways concentrating on liberal arts majors can benefit you.
1. They equip you for a variety of careers
One common criticism of a liberal arts education is that it doesn’t explicitly prepare students for the job market in the same ways that pre-professional and STEM programs do. But keep in mind that liberal arts majors are multidisciplinary in nature. The intent is to provide each graduate with a well-rounded education and a versatile skill set. The fact that such majors don’t necessarily provide a clear path from degree to career can actually be considered an advantage.
“Graduates will be versatile and well suited to adapt to a changing marketplace,” Dr. Borrego says. “The liberal arts prepare students to fit into many different job descriptions.”
Consider the variety of positions highlighted in a recent Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) report that outlined the top 15 professions liberal arts graduates pursue:
- Elementary and middle school teachers
- Lawyers, judges and magistrates
- Postsecondary teachers
- Chief executives and legislators
- Education administrators
- Social workers
- Secondary school teachers
- Sales representatives
- Retail sales supervisors
- Secretaries and administrative assistants
- Accountants and auditors
- Marketing and sales managers
2. They provide you with the versatile skill set employers are seeking
Believe it or not, employers across industries are interested in candidates who’ve mastered certain soft skills — things like effective communication, interpersonal interaction, problem-solving and critical thinking. In fact, the AACU report indicates that 93 percent of employers value those types of qualities more than the undergraduate major candidates choose.
Findings from the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) 2016 Job Outlook survey support this as well. A majority of respondents primarily look for candidates who have strong leadership skills, the ability to work well as a part of a team, excellent written communication capabilities and equally excellent oral communication skills.
“Every time we convene an advisory board of outside employers for a degree program review, they have the same requests,” Dr. Borrego notes. “They need employees who are able to read critically, write clearly and, without error, analyze data, present findings to differing audiences and speak to their colleagues and clients professionally.” All of these skills, she adds, are taught and refined in the liberal arts field.
Even in the technology sector, the skills liberal arts graduates focus on are in demand. A few Microsoft executives recently wrote a book digging into what they’ve learned in research about artificial intelligence (AI). One of the prime findings is that lessons from liberal arts subjects will be critical to unleash the full potential of AI.
3. They give you an edge in an increasingly automated workforce
Some of the latest research from the World Economic Forum predicts that machines will perform more work tasks than humans by 2025. In fact, a forecasted 75 million jobs may be displaced by the shift in division of labor between humans and AI-powered machines and algorithms.
But top Microsoft executives now maintain that it’s precisely that rise in computers’ ability to behave more like humans that will keep liberal arts graduates’ skills relevant in the modern workforce. They suggest that the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Courses in languages, art, history, philosophy, human development and psychology can teach skills that will be instrumental in both the development and management of AI solutions.
It’s worth noting that AI could also result in job creation. But many experts agree that the last jobs robots eventually displace will be those that require the most humanity.
4. They can set you up for admirable lifetime earnings
It’s easy to believe the downside of pursuing liberal arts majors is a lower earning potential. But data doesn’t support this. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, the average unemployment rate for new graduates across all humanities majors is nine percent, which is on par with that of computer science graduates.
The State of the Humanities 2018 report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences purports similarly encouraging findings. Results show that while liberal arts majors do typically see lower starting salaries than STEM graduates, they catch up over time. They often close that pay gap with strong mid-career earnings. Liberal arts majors may even edge out some STEM majors in lifetime earnings.
Also consider that liberal arts graduates don’t tend to carry any more college debt than those who pursued other majors.
5. They teach you how to innovate and relate
Liberal arts graduates also tend to exhibit a trait desired by organizational leaders across industries: innovation. According to Forbes contributor Willard Dix, a liberal arts education empowers students to continually challenge their own viewpoints, remaining open to new possibilities and willing to push the boundaries of what’s been done before.
“It removes the comfort of assuming there are ‘right’ answers to big questions,” he writes. “It introduces students to the ever-expanding world of ideas. It opens doors, enabling the mind to go wherever it wants in pursuit of knowledge and understanding. It bends toward openness instead of containment.”
Additionally, Dr. Freed maintains that the power of passion and creative imagination is invaluable. Creativity and innovation, some suggest, are crucial to any organization’s long-term success. And an understanding of emotional intelligence and human behavior is equally important.
“Emotionally engaging stories and metaphors change people’s hearts more effectively than logically sound arguments change their minds,” Dr. Freed notes. “Harriet Beecher Stowe’s mid-nineteenth century, best-selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had more to do with ending slavery in America than all of the prior constitutional amendments and Supreme Court decisions put together.”
Where could a liberal arts degree take you?
There’s clearly value in students pursuing liberal arts degrees. “As John Gardner concludes in his novel, Grendel, ‘The balance is all.’ And what employer would not appreciate a broadly educated and balanced employee joining their team of creative problem solvers?” Dr. Freed poses.
When it comes to choosing your own undergraduate major, it’s important to remember what you’re passionate about. If you’re drawn to one of the many liberal arts majors available to you, it could be time to learn more about your options. Visit University of Massachusetts Global’s School of Arts and Sciences page to see what could await.
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