The Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education

Taking classes in the liberal arts is still useful as the skills they teach - including communications and critical thinking - remain valued by employers

By Neil Johnson
Posted 2012

Liberal Arts Education Value Explained
Liberal Arts Education Value Explained

Not everybody can be an engineer. Or a scientist.

Sure, they get to wear spiffy white lab coats, be smart, and hold some of the highest paid jobs graduates with a bachelor’s degree can get.

But not everyone is cut out for a technical career. It could be the math, mind-numbing courses or maybe a different half of the brain running things, but some people are more suited to write a sonnet than computer code.

Liberal arts have been ushered to the back of the course selection lines while colleges, the government and business continue to emphasize the popular quartet of science, technology, engineering and math.

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A recent U.S. Census Bureau report didn’t do much to burnish the image of liberal arts. It showed people with a bachelor’s in arts and humanities occupied the bottom of the pay scale compared to other fields.

The field of liberal arts and history fell near the bottom in pay with barely half the people working full-time, trailed only by education. However, liberal arts fared better than literature and languages or visual and performing arts. Communications paid slightly better and 60% of the people with the degree worked full-time.

Not that everyone with a liberal arts degree is doomed to a Raman noodle diet while living in the parents’ basement. The Census report showed median pay ranged from $50,000 to $58,000 and the pay for liberal arts majors who are self-employed was $63,000.

Still, the business and science professions did better in pay and percentage of degree holders working full time.

The Death Watch for Liberal Arts Education has been Going on for a While

In a 2010 conference address, U.S. Department of Education Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter said a study showed 212 liberal arts colleges in 1990 dropped to 136 by 2009.

But it doesn’t mean liberal arts majors have a degree with little worth.

The broad spectrum of learning gleaned from liberal arts classes such as communications skills, problem solving and dealing with people are sought by employers.

This is from the Occupational Outlook Quarterly in the winter of 2007-2008: “Surveys by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) show that most hiring managers care more about a job candidate’s skills than they do about a college major. And the skills employers say they want most in a candidate, such as communication and critical thinking, are precisely those for which liberal arts students are known.”

The same article on the Bureau of Labor Statistics site went on to say liberal arts majors spread into a variety of careers that include management, sales and graphic arts. An English major may seek a career in business or communications as an editor, the article said.

The writer Diana Gehlhaus went on to say, though, that liberal arts majors to need to think carefully about what job they want to pursue because so many options are available.

A liberal arts education offers the chance for higher achievements, Kanter said. While only 3% of graduates go to a classic liberal arts college, graduates of those schools account for almost 20% of our presidents, she said.

“On a per capita basis, liberal arts colleges today produce nearly twice as many doctorates in science as other institutions. And by some estimates, about one in 12 of the nation's wealthiest CEOs graduated from a liberal arts institution,” Kanter said.

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Even if sonnets are a luxury in the new world, liberal arts may have a deeper value in society, according to a blog “Coming to the Defense of Liberal Education” by Michael Roth, at the time president of Wesleyan University, and published on on June 9, 2010.

His ideas go to broader benefits from liberal arts beyond getting a job.

“That's why it's so important to understand the deep, contemporary practicality of a liberal education. Patient and persistent critical inquiry has never been more crucial, and the development of this capacity is one of the defining features of a liberal education,” he wrote.

“Learning through the liberal arts energizes capacities for innovation and for judgment. Those who can imagine how best to reconfigure existing resources and project future results will be the shapers of our economy and culture.”

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