Are Liberal Arts Degrees Worth It?

I know that’s a loaded question.  But someone just asked me how her son should go about finding a job in this market with a liberal arts degree in English.  The implication being that young job-seekers in the market today will be hindered if they have such an education.  There are biases both for and against liberal arts degrees, so the answer could easily have been “It depends.”

Many people assume that liberal arts grads benefit from breadth of education, not depth.  Indeed, most of those schools will argue that exposure to a larger variety of subjects like history, art and religion will imbue the student with a life-long love of learning and the social and historical perspective to understand and improve the world we live in.  Mission statements often mention fostering the development of a whole person.

Critics argue that a broad education does not prepare the student for employment following graduation.  That without training in a specific area or skill, it’s difficult to demonstrate potential value to an organization.  Especially in this economy.  When times are tough and hiring slows to a trickle, or stops, employers only look for candidates with demonstrated strength in very specific areas.  To use a baseball analogy, they need power hitters, or pitchers, or great defenders.  Not utility players.  Liberal arts grads are seen as utility players.  In a better economy, it’s not as tough.

Let’s say Company A (Banking industry) is looking to add a junior resource to their Communications staff.  Given the abundance of recently graduated talent, they could expect to receive hundreds of resumes.  Many of those resumes would be from candidates with a B.S. in Communications, or MBAs, etc.  They’ll also get applications from Psychology majors who just happen to have great verbal and written communication skills.  Guess who gets called back?  As a candidate in a tight market, it really hurts your chances to be seen as a jack of all trades, master of none.

The same thing happens with internships.  Candidates with 2 or 3 internships are most likely to get called back.  But what about a Midwestern kid who has to work on the farm every summer?  Just because she didn’t have a corporate job doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an amazing work ethic, insightful ideas, and off-the-charts energy levels.

And there’s the parallel question: Should you go to college to study what you love, or to study what’s going to land you a job after school so you can pay off all that debt?

Back to the question: Does a Liberal Arts degree preclude you from getting a job right now?  No — it obviously doesn’t.  But it may be more immediately difficult, and it’s good to admit it.  There are tons of things that can help re-balance the scales.  And it’s important to remember that a well-rounded education is the foundation for a lifetime of learning and achievement.  It’s a long-term play.  There are so many things outside of “work” that make life meaningful and enjoyable that deserve recognition, too.  There are many educational and professional paths that don’t give exposure to the arts, or to literature, or many of the other spicy varieties of life.

Without direct experience in the field or position applied for, it’s always tough to land a job.  One way to help is to call out specific non-functional skills and traits that are probably even more important to success anyway.  Most of what’s required for success in a position isn’t specific to an industry, company, or department.  Creative problem solving, leading without authority, the synthesis of complex ideas, and strong communication skills will get a recent grad farther than any tactical/functional skill I can think of.  That includes experience with MS Access, writing proposals, account management, and testing software.  So during the interview process, it’s extremely important to move the conversation toward the real valuable skills and highlight real, detailed examples.

Liberal Arts grads can be very effective in positions where they work between different groups and can use their curiosity and flexibility to understand and benefit all parties.  There are many positions that work between Business and Technology, or help Corporate interface with Field Sales, for example.

It’s also important to demonstrate interest in the position and passion for that industry.  I’ve heard more than a few managers ask if their position is right for the candidate if the candidate studied Psychology.  And that’s a very good question to ask, because nobody wants to hire a flight risk who’s likely to leave in a year or two because their flame hasn’t been ignited.  It’s easy to believe a Finance major who’s applying for a job in Finance, but it’s hard to believe an English major. In general, all candidates should show passion, but especially if their educational background doesn’t exactly line up with the position.

Business and Technology needs are changing at such a rapid pace that a well-rounded education (in the right hands) can definitely become a major asset, even as compared with immediate ability to contribute.  How often do business models change?  How often do companies re-org?  How often do we implement new technology?  What’s valuable today may not mean much tomorrow.  The right person has built the underpinnings of success first, and can learn and adapt to new things along the way.

Yes, Liberal Arts degrees are worth it.  But it may mean getting a job requires a slightly different approach that helps employers see both the immediate and longer-term value.  That’s not a bad thing.  Just different.

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One response to “Are Liberal Arts Degrees Worth It?

  1. Pingback: Liberal Arts Catches Up Eventually | Get a Leg Up

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