The case for a liberal arts education

How to choose your college major
How to choose your college major   

Bookish. Spacey. Uncomfortable with topics like math and finance.

There are plenty of stereotypes about liberal arts majors, and some actually have a base in reality. But one—that liberal arts majors are unemployable or will never earn a decent salary—needs a second look.

While liberal arts majors may have a tougher time landing that first job than someone with a computer science degree, their prospects are hardly hopeless.

A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that the job offer rate for 2014 college graduates was higher than the previous year—48 percent versus 46 percent—thanks in large part to more offers for liberal arts majors.

"The improvement appears to be totally located among students majoring in some of the weakest academic areas emerging from the recession, the liberal arts and sciences and education," the report's authors said.

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Many of those jobs were in education, according to Edwin Koc, director of research at the association, and those jobs do not tend to pay terribly well. But overall, liberal arts degree holders are holding their own in the compensation department.

College students in class
Kristian Sekulic | Vetta | Getty Images

A study released earlier this year by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in conjunction with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, found that liberal arts graduates right out of college earn an average $26,271, almost $5,000 less than those with pre-professional or professional degrees in fields like computer networking. But by their peak earning years, from age 56 to 60, people with liberal arts degrees earn an average of $66,185, about $2,000 more than their peers with professional or pre-professional degrees.

The majority of employers in the survey, which belonged to sectors ranging from accounting to retail, had a positive view of liberal arts graduates. When the respondents were read a description of liberal arts education today, 74 percent said they would recommend that kind of education as "the best way to prepare for success in today's global economy." They also said skills like critical thinking, problem-solving and communication were more important than any one major.

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The findings fly in the face of a recent backlash against liberal arts studies. In 2013, Gov. Patrick McCrory of North Carolina pushed to change funding for the state university system to de-emphasize liberal arts.

"If you want to take gender studies, that's fine, go to a private school and take it," he said in a radio interview with host Bill Bennett. "But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job."

McCrory has since softened his tone, but his goal remains the same. "I think the big change that the University of North Carolina and all universities are going to have to make in the future is they're going to have to adapt more quickly to the changing market environment and to the job skills gaps that industry is facing at this point in time," he said in a speech earlier this month at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Earlier, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida had pushed to rejigger his state's university funding to tilt toward science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM fields. The state now measures the performance of its colleges and universities on seven metrics, starting with the percentage of graduates who are employed or continuing their education, and their income.

"We don't need a lot more anthropologists in the state," Scott told a radio host. "I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees."

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At some point, though, "you get too many STEM graduates," said Patrick Kelly, a senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. And liberal arts graduates bring key skills to the job market, he added.

"If you ask any employers what they would like to see better associated with graduates, it's communication skills, the ability to write well, and the ability to work in teams."

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Indeed, 93 percent of the employers surveyed for the Association of American Colleges and Universities report agreed with the statement that "candidates' demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major." Only 16 percent said knowledge of a specific field or skill was most important for long-term success.

Liberal arts graduates may not go on to jobs that are as lucrative as engineering of physical science careers, Kelly said, but they do fill jobs that are important to society, as teachers, social workers, and the like. If they continue on to graduate school and pick up career-specific skills, liberal arts degree holders can significantly boost their income, he added, and earning some kind of proficiency in a technical area can also supplement their liberal arts qualifications.

A 2013 study by Burning Glass, a labor analytics company, supports that idea. The study examined a year's worth of job openings and found that liberal arts graduates, far from being unemployable, were qualified for about 25 percent of them. If those same graduates took a few courses or landed an internship that gave them some technical skills, they qualified for about twice as many.

Acquiring these skills will make a big difference in liberal arts majors' employability, but "this is stuff that can live at the peripheries of your academic program," said Matt Sigelman, chief executive of Burning Glass.

The extra work also boosts liberal arts majors' earnings prospects, the study found. Developing one or more of eight skill sets—marketing, sales, business, social media, graphic design, data analysis, computer programming or IT networking—makes them eligible for jobs with starting salaries about $6,000 higher.

"Even in technical roles, you see employers shouting from the rooftops that they can't get what they need. What they're often talking about are foundational skills," Sigelman said. "The market for what liberal arts students are accruing is as strong as ever. They just need to figure out how to acquire the job market skills to make themselves relevant right out the door."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version misspelled the last name of Matt Sigelman.