Education, News

The Pros and Cons of Liberal Arts Degrees

One of the most difficult decisions a college student must make is what degree to pursue. With the rising cost of tuition and increase in student loans, many students feel the pressure to select a major that will make this financial investment pay off after graduation.

typewriter:Florian Klauer

Once a student has declared a major, they will likely have to answer the unavoidable question posed by family members and friends: “What do you plan to do with that?” For students in degree programs that are designed to provide skills and preparation for specific job roles, this question is an easy one to answer. On the other hand, for students in liberal arts degree programs, it may be a little more difficult to address with certainty.

The debate over the value of a liberal arts degree has become a common discussion among students, parents, and politicians in today’s society.

With its more ambiguous career prospects, is a liberal arts degree worth the investment after all? Let’s take a closer look at both sides, the pros and cons of a liberal arts degree.

Criticism for liberal arts degrees

The value of liberal arts education has sparked political debate and criticism. In a 2011 interview with The Herald-Tribune, Florida Governor Rick Scott stated, “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

In this interview, Governor Scott argued for less funding for liberal arts programs and more funding for programs in science, technology, engineering, and math, or “STEM.” In a broad sense, the claim here is that STEM programs fuel the economy and give students better job prospects than liberal arts degrees.

Assuming the point of a college education is to get a job in a related field and earn a salary that justifies the cost of four years’ worth of college tuition, liberal arts degrees are subject to a significant amount of public criticism for not being a wise investment. After all, compared to STEM majors, liberal arts majors on average make less and are more likely to be underemployed (in a job that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree) right out of college.

Overall, the reason why many consider a STEM degree to be more valuable could be due to the focus on developing hands-on technical and professional skills that are directly applicable to career-related positions. The skills acquired in a liberal arts degree program may be considered more abstract and less valuable in the short-term after graduation.

The case for liberal arts degrees

Though there is certainly some truth underlying these critiques, there is a strong case to be made for the value of a liberal arts degree in today’s society. Despite not being as likely as STEM degrees to show immediate results after graduation, liberal arts degrees have many long-term benefits and advantages that are often overlooked.

First, liberal arts degrees give students a broad-range of skills, many of which employers weigh with significant importance. A national survey of business and non-profit leaders conducted by the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU) reported that:

  • 93% of employers agree that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.”
  • 95% weigh with importance “ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and the capacity for continued new learning.”
  • More than 75% want to see more “critical thinking, complex problem solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.”

Second, liberal arts degrees allow for flexibility and adaptability to new career positions. Due to the broad and encompassing nature of a liberal arts education, students may able to apply their wide range of skills to a large number of careers and positions. With a long-term career perspective in mind, in the end liberal arts majors may be better prepared than their STEM peers for shifting and changing global job market demand and conditions.

Lastly, liberal arts degrees do pay off in terms of income, but more in the long run. A joint study by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) and the AACU found that although liberal arts majors make less than professional majors in terms of annual income right out of college (age 21-25), they make more on average at their peak salary age (age 56-60):

  • Right out of college (age 21-25), the average annual salary for liberal arts majors is $26,272, compared to $31,183 among professional majors.
  • At peak earning ages (51-60), the average annual salary for liberal arts majors is $66,185, compared to $64,149 among professional majors.

The final word

There are many factors to consider when choosing a college major, and the decision can certainly be overwhelming. If you’re considering pursuing a liberal arts degree but are unsure whether or not this is a good decision for you, hopefully the information presented here will help you make an informed decision. If you’ve recently graduated with a liberal arts degree and are feeling frustrated at trying to start your career, hopefully this information has encouraged you to see the value in your education in the long-term perspective.

Do you have a liberal arts degree? How have you fared with it? Would you get it again?

Photo: Florian Klauer/Unsplash

Previous post

How to Save Money While in College

Next post

How to Manage Your Money in Preparation for College

The Author

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman, SHRM-CP, has a background in human resources, anthropology, and international education. His experience teaching English abroad during a gap year as an undergraduate student in Spain ignited his passion and advocacy for student travel. As a human resources professional, Dave is interested in helping students prepare for future career growth, and for helping facilitate social & cultural inclusion in the workplace.