Apologizing for the Liberal Arts

A couple of months ago, I went with my son to freshman orientation at a large state university. Though he’s undecided about his major, he’ll probably land somewhere in the liberal arts, so we attended the “What to Expect” session for liberal arts majors. It wasn’t what we expected.

It had never occurred to my son to doubt the value of the liberal arts. But the academic advisor leading that session was so apologetic about the liberal arts that my son was ready to go find another major by the time the hour was up. “People say liberal arts majors can’t get jobs,” the advisor said. “That’s not altogether true,” she said, “though, admittedly, it’s harder for liberal arts majors to get work in their fields.” The most encouraging thing she had to say was that liberal arts majors are well-prepared for graduate school, and that graduate school is a good way to get a job.

The advisor’s approach was all wrong, and not just because she treated higher education as if it were merely job training. The liberal arts do prepare students to be excellent employees. Critical thinking, communication, writing, working in teams—these are key competencies; and, unlike many technical skills, these aren’t competencies that employers are typically able or willing to teach new employees.

A survey released by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (cited in this MSNBC story) suggests that recent growth in the hiring of new graduates is largely attributable to increased hiring of liberal arts majors—in other words, the hiring of liberal arts majors has been increased more rapidly than the hiring of other majors. The same MSNBC story cites another study that found that while liberal arts majors earn less right out of college, they earn more as they get older.

All of this is good news for liberal arts colleges: for all the talk about the importance of STEM majors, the liberal arts are still a good investment.

In your enrollment marketing materials, don't apologize for the liberal arts or use cliches as the advisor did. Rather, talk about your institution's success stories and how its liberal arts alumni are making a difference in the world.

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