For Liberal or Science: First Generation Students Debate

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For the past few years, there has been a continuous debate between the value of a liberal arts education and a Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) education. An argument said that a liberal arts education is  equivalent to a “wasted piece of paper and a job at a fast-food chain.” (Provencio, 2015). This underlines the idea that a degree in the S.T.E.M. field is more beneficial in the long term. Despite the pressure from family and society on minorities to gain socioeconomic mobility through a STEM education, the liberal arts provides an important alternative educational experience for first generation students. In this paper, arguments on how STEM education benefits first generation students are examined as it can potentially help with job preparation. Then, the arguments for liberal arts education provides an excellent alternative for first generation students because develops critical perspective, leadership preparation and social mobility.

From a young age, I have always been told that getting a degree in the sciences was a guaranteed way to have the opportunity of  a better life. Similarity, this type of reasoning was given to most minorities, particularly first generation students. First generation students are given information that supported this idea. Many first generation students are told “degrees in S.T.E.M. fields were listed among the top ten majors by salary potential” (Ebersole 2013). Additionally, there is evidence that obtaining a S.T.E.M. degree leads to many employment opportunities. MarketWatch, a leading American website, states that “nearly 50% of job seekers said they believe there are “no jobs” out there for those with a liberal arts degree, according to a survey of 2,978 job seekers“ (Fottrell, 2014). For a first generation student like myself, there is pressure to make your family and community proud. Being the first to pursue a higher education makes the pressure to succeed immense and pressure from family members to get a respectable job like a doctor. Thus most first generation students focus on a field that leads to a job with high potential to be high paying. Thus the reason why the STEM field is typically the top choice and making it hard to pursue something that does not have a bright future like the supposed liberal arts. However, this mindset ignores an entire different schooling that people have been attending: the liberal arts.

The path towards a S.T.E.M. degree is extremely rigorous and audacious to pursue. Minorities, such as first generation students, often have trouble with the limited exposure to that type of environment. Many minorities switch from the S.T.E.M. route to the liberal arts because they are “discouraged, unprepared or struggling” (Newlon, 2013). In today’s job market, it is encouraged by many employers to pursue a graduate degree. Evidence suggests that “for those who do seek further education, their prospects are better. About 40% of humanities and social sciences students attend graduate school versus 30% of professional and pre-professional students” (Fottrell 2014) which includes students with a STEM degree.  

A liberal arts education is often scrutinized for not being useful in terms of job prospects and opportunities. However, having a liberal arts degree in fields for the liberal arts like History, Linguistics, and Political Science have advantage that a STEM degree cannot provide. According to the Huffington Post article, Is an Education in the Liberal Arts Important?, many different degrees can be beneficial to employment. For example, the author talks about how “Humanities majors encourage analysis, critical-thinking, and a vast knowledge of various topics.” and the “majors look deeper into varied texts that affect media, culture, society, literature, and politics.” (Provencio 2015). Furthermore, a survey conducted by Northwestern University shows evidence about how  “an overwhelming 73 percent of employers said that being well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry expertise because job-specific skills can be learned at work.” (Ebersole, 2013). This is included with salaries and educational prospects as a liberal arts education can compete with a STEM degree. When looking at salaries that the liberal arts education can provide, it is not too far off that a STEM education can provide. According to Is an Education in the Liberal Arts Important?, “Among the top five schools listed by PayScale for liberal arts degrees, the mid-career pay ranges from $64,400 to $79,000… with an median income for all households in the U.S. is $51,017” (Ebersole 2013). Thus showing that the earning potential of a liberal arts education is higher than expected and closer to the average for $66,123 that was provided from Burning Glass Technology.

A liberal arts education provides first generation students the chance to gain two important skills that employers always seek, critical and leadership preparation. These important skills are desired by employers as they allow people to actually change the world as innovators as opposed to being carbon copies performing tasks without any desire to change the world. These skills are obtained by learning about different aspects of the world and connecting them together. Students who attend a liberal arts college have the opportunity to take classes from a wide range of academic fields. For example, a student, such as myself, could be a chemistry major, take some science classes, math classes like a typical STEM student, but can also take a few acting classes, philosophy classes, history classes, or anything they desire because they have the opportunity to do so. With these different classes, students can have different perspectives from their classes and apply it in their careers to have a more complete understanding of the different aspects in the world that are affected them. And when someone is able to connect different aspects of the world, they are able to lead people to new way of think, design new inventions, ideas and everything in between. Usually first generation students do not have the chance to get any of these important experiences if they only attend classes for the sake of being educated in one particular field. This is the reason why the liberal arts exist, to provide people, especially first generation students, to learn and understand all their different interests and connecting everything together.

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