By Luke Yasui February 15th, 2016
Like Hogwarts, liberal arts schools are under attack
Liberal arts degrees, once sought after as the ideal pathway to success through higher education, are now heavily debated over as to their worth in today’s job market. Whichever side you take, it remains a fact that liberal arts schools are rapidly disappearing; from 1990 to 2009, the number of liberal arts schools in the U.S. has decreased from 212 to 137, a decrease of approximately 35% (Baker). Critics claim that liberal arts schools teach outdated skills that do not translate to employment, and thus inadequately prepares students for employment in the postgraduate world. On the contrary, supporters argue that the liberal arts teach unique skills that are still highly valuable in modern society. In my opinion, both sides of the argument explain important truths; the liberal arts education is still uniquely valuable, however getting a degree alone without supplementing with proper career preparation is likely to result in unemployment.
Critics of the liberal arts argue that pre-professional degrees, like those from STEM fields or vocational schools, are much more likely to yield a job than traditional Liberal Arts degrees, and thus paying hundreds of thousands for a liberal arts degree is not worth it. In his article How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America, Scott Gerber cites a statistic that in 2011, 53% of bachelor’s degree holders under 25 were unemployed. This statistic suggests that liberal arts graduates struggle to find jobs immediately post graduation, however it does not mean that specific technical degrees, which tend to provide graduates with immediate employment, are more valuable than liberal arts degrees in the long term. A report, which examined earnings and long-term career paths for college graduates, shows how liberal arts majors tend to struggle after graduation, but several decades they tend to out-earn those who found immediate with pre-professional degrees (Grasgreen). This is because liberal arts majors tend to adapt better when the job market changes.
Supporters claim that the traditional liberal arts education, which focuses on the humanities and writing, teach unique critical thinking and interpersonal skills, also referred to as “soft skills”, which provide graduates with advantages in the modern job market. They claim that since the modern job market is so unpredictable and rapidly changing, a broad set of skills and adaptability are key skills for success, since new jobs are replacing old jobs at a high rate. At any given time, certain specific professional skills have immediate financial reward in the economy, however as ten years go by, those skills become obsolete and are too specific to be used for another field. In his article College Calculus, John Cassidy points out:“During the dot-com era, enrollment in computer-science and information-technology programs rose sharply. After the bursting of the stock-market bubble, many of these graduates couldn’t find work.” Pre-professional education can be risky for a long term career if it is purposed to craft specifically skilled workers. Whereas the broader soft skills possessed by liberal arts graduates are beneficial when the market replaces your job with a new one with different required skills; the creative thinking, learning, and communication skills allow a liberal arts student to smoothly transition into a new working environment and learn the new required workplace skills. Nevertheless, the initial struggle of liberal arts graduates is significant enough to question whether long term adaptability is worth enduring potential years of unemployment.
Alongside the advantages of a liberal arts education, there are enough apparent disadvantages that reveal much room for improvement. At the start of spring in 2011, just 56% of college graduates of 2010 held a job, and only half of those jobs actually required a degree (Rampell). While some graduates only endure this job struggle for a year or two before being launched upwards into a degree-based career, many find themselves stuck at low wage jobs with a cloud of student debt looming over them. In her article, Is It Time To Kill The Liberal Arts Degree, Kim Brooks tells a story about her seven years of post-graduation struggles, despite her student accomplishments. “I’d spent four years at a rigorous institution honing my writing, research and critical-thinking skills. I’d written an impressive senior thesis, gathered recommendations from professors, completed summer internships in various journalistic endeavors… “But I do wonder, why was I allowed to decide on a major without ever sitting down with my advisor and talking about what I might do with that major after graduating?” Reflecting on her college experience, she feels she was one of many students, two out of three she estimates, who graduated without having received proper career guidance. With price tags upwards of $100,000, many students of and critics of liberal arts alike are confounded by the lack of post-graduate career stability. Many critics and supporters agree that liberal arts schools could benefit by supplementing their well rounded, creative thinking students with better practical career skills.
Based on my personal experience, it appears that liberal arts colleges are both creating talented critical thinkers that will go on become great leaders of positive change in the world, while also providing a dangerously over-priced experience with little reward for students who lack self-direction and professional drive. Unfortunately, many kids at my school believe that as long as they follow their passion, and graduate with a degree, they will easily land in a great career. I worry that they will struggle, as they tend to shrug off the idea of writing a resumé, or searching for work experience opportunities. Perhaps the graduate unemployment and student debt crisis is not due to “worthless” humanities majors, but rather due to kids who wait until they are about to graduate college to start planning their future. It’s not the degree that makes a career, it’s the student.
With that being said, liberal arts schools should continue adapting to include more business and career training for their students. A liberal arts student who builds additional professional skills is not guaranteed a job straight out of college, but they are far better off than the student who only focuses on liberal arts studies. Similarly, a pre-professional student who also practices analytical writing and studies philosophy is more likely to achieve long-term success than a student who devotes all their time to master one skill. Whether we choose STEM or liberal arts, we all must acknowledge the unique values of the other discipline and not assume that one is inherently superior to the other. Going forward, The liberal arts will continue to adapt and survive as they collaborate with pre-professional schooling, and integrate their practices into their traditional educational method.
Gerber, Scott. 2012 “How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America” The Atlantic, September 24.
Grasgreen, Allie. 2014 “Liberal Arts Grads Win Long-Term” Inside Higher Ed, January 22nd.
Bellis, Rich. 2015 “How To Get A Job Of The Future With A Liberal Arts Degree” Fast Company, September 30.
Cassidy, John. 2015 “College Calculus” The New Yorker, September 7th.
Rampell, Catherine. 2011 “Many With New College Degree Find The Job Market Humbling” The New York Times, May 18.