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What is the Value of a Liberal Arts Degree?

An academic advisor for the Alma College Model U.N. program listens to a student's presentation during class at Alma College, a tiny, north-central Michigan liberal arts school in Michigan.
An academic advisor for the Alma College Model U.N. program listens to a student's presentation during class at Alma College, a tiny, north-central Michigan liberal arts school in Michigan.
What Is the Value of a Liberal Arts Degree?
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Some college students may wonder why their school asks them to take a class in philosophy when they are seeking a degree in physics.

But studying several different subjects in addition to a student’s chosen major is the main idea behind a liberal arts education.

Many colleges and universities describe themselves as liberal arts schools. Students at these educational institutions are able to choose the main subject they want to study, such as economics. The school also requires them to take a number of classes in several unrelated subjects, like the arts or languages.

This is far different from institutions offering degree programs that directly relate to a specific career or industry. These programs are often just for areas of specialized training, such as business, engineering or medicine. And students preparing for a career in these fields only take classes that relate to their study program.

Critics say liberal arts degrees have less value because they fail to help students find good-paying positions or any job right after college.

In fact, information on the pay for some careers seems to support this idea. A company called Payscale studies the amount of money people earn in different careers in the United States. The company found that on average, recent graduates with liberal arts degrees make less than those with degrees directly related to a specific career.

For example, Payscale found the average graduate with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering will earn $96,700 a year in the first five years of their career. By comparison, the average graduate with a bachelor’s degree in history will earn $42,200.

However, more and more experts suggest that a liberal arts education has greater value than most people realize.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a public liberal arts college. Ben Austin-Docampo began studying there in 2004. Austin-Docampo says he did not have a specific career in mind when he finished high school. So he choose to study a college major that interested him: anthropology. His parents supported his decision and his academic advisors did little to suggest one path over another.

But after graduating in 2008, Austin-Docampo felt unsure about how much his college degree would help him in finding a job. At that point, the world’s economy was in a recession. He tried moving to Portland, Oregon in 2009. But the unemployment rate there was 12.1 percent.

Austin-Docampo worked in restaurants and held low-paying positions. He had very little money for several years. He felt he had been lied to about what to expect from a liberal arts degree after college.

It wasn’t until several years later that his situation began to improve. Austin-Docampo always loved writing. He moved to northern California in 2014 and a year later became a writer for the U.S. National Park Service. He now says it is the best job he has ever had.

He also says it was the many different skills he learned in college that helped him get the job. And not just those related to anthropology.

Austin-Docampo adds that many of the people he meets in California work in the technology industry. He says many of them struggle with the skills he learned in college.

"It taught me to think about the world, the people in it, how our systems work in a different way. To be able to think more comparatively and a way to think, I think, with empathy for others. … And these are things that I took for granted for a long time. … Now when I meet people in San Francisco who are in tech sometimes, or this or that, I notice that they think about the world in a very different way from how I think of the world. And I think, honestly, to their detriment."

Austin-Docampo’s story is similar to those of other liberal arts graduates

Sean Leslie is a senior strategist at Payscale. He says students with more technical training often find good jobs right after college. Employers need workers that have skills with a clear purpose right away.

But Leslie adds that liberal arts graduates have skills that are useful in different ways, like working well with others and critical thinking. Graduates with more technical degrees often struggle with such skills. He says their education has taught them to carry out specific jobs, but little else.

"These students coming out of college are going into the workforce and … these companies that are wanting to hire them are finding that they lack certain skills that liberal arts students would generally be strong in, like writing, reading comprehension, problem-solving. … So … we find that a lot of liberal arts degrees eventually catch up later in their career."

In fact, while Payscale reports lower earnings for liberal arts graduates early in their careers, this changes after several years.

For example, the average graduate with a bachelor’s degree in government and politics will earn $44,600 per year in the first five years after completing their studies. But within the next five years after that, they will earn $90,400 per year, on average.

Also, the Association of American Colleges and Universities last year released a report on what employers want from college graduates. The report showed that 60 percent of employers want graduates to have knowledge and skills directly related to a specific field as well as more general skills.

Only 15 percent valued specific skills more than anything.

But what is it about experiencing and learning many different things that is so valuable?

Eric Jensen is a professor of physics and astronomy at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He also works with Swarthmore’s Frank Aydelotte Foundation for the Advancement of the Liberal Arts. The foundation tries to publicize and explain the value of a liberal arts education to businesses and the general public.

Jensen says the value comes from forcing students to think in unfamiliar ways. Also, when liberal arts students with different focuses are in a class together, they must learn to explain their thinking to people with different interests and ways of thinking.

"They’ve had a lot of practice … with taking a new situation where maybe it’s not something they’ve seen before, maybe it’s not something that they have trained for specifically, but learning how to learn about that new topic, learn about how to find resources to figure out quickly what makes that work and what makes it fit together with other things."

The only problem, says Edwin Koc, is that colleges need to better explain how a student’s choice of degree program will affect them. Koc is the senior director of research and public policy at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. His organization studies how education can lead to employment.

Koc says that schools and parents should not try to get students to choose any one major over another. After all, the college experience is about exploration and discovery. But in addition, he says, students should be told that nothing is promised to them.

"Not everybody’s going to succeed. You have the perception that college is the golden ticket, everybody should get a college education. The fact of the matter is, that in general that is true. You’re going to be more successful in your life if you have a college education than if you do not. But it’s no guarantee, regardless of the academic major that you choose, that that will come true."

To help liberal arts graduates succeed at the same level as others, Koc says, schools must combine career and academic advising. Professors and school administrators must work together to show students how their wide range of skills are useful in the working world.

I’m Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported on this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Do universities in your country offer a liberal arts education? How common is it for people to find a well-paying job right after college? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

degree n. an official document and title that is given to someone who has successfully completed a series of classes at a college or university

majorn. the main subject studied by a college or university student

institution(s) – n. an established organization

specificadj. special or particular

bachelor’s degreen. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after four years of study

academicadj. of or relating to schools and education

empathyn. the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions

(took) for granted idm. to fail to properly notice or appreciate (someone or something that is helpful or important to you

detrimentn. the act of causing damage or injury to something or someone

strategistn. a person who is skilled in making plans for achieving a goal

comprehensionn. ability to understand

catch upp.v. to join someone who is ahead of you

foundationn. an organization that is created and supported with money that people give in order to do something that helps society

focus(es) – n. a subject that is being discussed or studied

perceptionn. the way you think about or understand someone or something

golden ticketidm. a special skill or type of experience, knowledge, person or thing that can provide success, money or wealth