Liberal arts education is far from being dead and useless in the digital age. Liberal education brings with it benefits that stand the test of history and time. According to Fareed Zakaria, CNN anchor, liberal education does not only provide the capacity to grow professionally but also personally and socially. Despite a worldwide emphasis on STEM-saturated education, students who attend a liberal arts school gain an unparalleled education that uniquely prepares them for successful careers and a life of learning and fulfillment.
Also, a study of the current employment environment reveals that liberal arts majors are sought by many employers for possessing the type of skills that 93% of employers are after (AAC&U, 2014). These skills include interpersonal, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills (Graves, n.d.).
In this article, we will present relevant information about liberal arts degree, such as the liberal arts definition, its academic nature, professional applications, and some key statistics. We will also touch on liberal arts majors’ competitiveness, especially in comparison with science, engineering, business majors, and others in terms of career pathways and earning trajectories.
It is common to encounter inquiring minds that ask “What is liberal arts?” and “What is a liberal arts degree?” To answer the latter, a liberal arts degree is an academic program that focuses on general areas of study rather than in applied or specialized fields. These general studies include philosophy, literature, history, languages, creative arts, and others. To answer the first question, however, we have to dig a bit deeper into the history.
Historically, liberal arts referred to the seven branches of knowledge taught in medieval schools. These branches of knowledge are divided into two main categories namely the trivium or “three roads/ways” and quadrivium, which means “four roads/ways.” The branches of knowledge under trivium focused on grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Quadrivium, on the other hand, referred to the branches of knowledge that centered on arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. (Rodriguez, 2018). Together, these seven branches of knowledge formed the backbone of Western education.
In modern society, a liberal arts degree might not provide students with certain technical skill sets to perform a job (i.e., computer programming, etc.); however, it helps lay down a strong foundation for students to hone invaluable sets of “employability skills.” These skills include effective communication, logical thinking, numeracy, and more (Sigurdson, n.d.). Academically, liberal arts studies are meant to provide general knowledge and develop general intellectual capabilities, such as reasoning and judgment, as opposed to professional or vocational skills.
In the subject of career readiness, the value and contribution of liberal arts studies to the professional growth of an individual have been doubted and scrutinized. The circumstances, however, appear to be different from the perception of liberal arts students and graduates, and most importantly the potential employers as shown in the following statistics:
Student applicants who plan to take liberal arts degree after high school must fulfill the following basic requirements (Best Colleges, 2018):
PhD in liberal arts involve doctoral-level studies in various disciplines and are designed based on the student’s field of interest and the requirements of the academic institution. Because of this unique setup, most programs require student applicants to submit a curriculum plan as well as a final dissertation proposal as part of following basic requirements (Study.com, 2019).
The credit hours vary, depending on the degree level, program, and if the student is taking classes full time or part-time. For associate degrees, students are required to complete 60-62 credit hours, which can take up to two years for full-time students to complete, and three to four years for part-time students (Best Colleges, 2018). As for bachelor’s degree programs, the majority of them require around 120 credit hours, which can take full-time students four years to complete and longer for part-time students (Best Colleges, 2018).
Master’s in liberal arts require 30-36 credits to complete (Best Colleges, 2018). Depending on whether a student can attend full time or part-time, this degree can be completed within two to four years (BestColleges, 2018). Doctorate degrees may also require 30-36 credits of course work, but the number of credits varies depending on the institution and the program. Normally, liberal arts PhD programs take three years to complete but go for as long as seven years (GradSchool, 2019).
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NACE), studying at public four-year institutions in the school year 2017-18 cost undergraduate students $20,050 in tuition and other fees. In two-year public institutions, the cost was around $10,704 per student. In private nonprofit and for-profit institutions, the cost of a four-year undergraduate degree was $43,139, and $25,596 for a two-year degree in school year 2017-18 (NCES, 2019).
Based on the report by College Board (2019, p. 9), the published cost of master’s degree programs in public universities for school year 2019-2020 is $8,090 and $31,140 in the private nonprofit sector. For doctoral degrees, the average published cost when attending public universities is $11,380 and $45,380 in private nonprofit institutions.
US News released its most recent list of the best colleges, which ranks institutions across the United States that grant bachelor’s degrees based on “15 diverse measures of academic quality,” which determine the overall performance of each institution in terms of academic excellence (Morse et al., 2019).
Based on the results, Williams College, a private institution located in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is currently the best college in the country when it comes to liberal arts studies. On the number two spot is Amherst College, also located in the state of Massachusetts, and Philadelphia-based Swarthmore College in the third place.
A report published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities reveal that bachelor’s degree holders of liberal arts studies are employed across a wide range of fields, such as education, law, business and finance, sales, and more (Humphreys & Kelly, 2014):
Fast forward to 2020, a report published by NACE reveals that liberal arts majors can earn an average of $40,000 annually for starters. Meanwhile, those with doctorate degrees can earn as much as $200,000 annually (NACE, 2020).
The general perception of liberal arts studies is that they are inferior to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees. These liberal arts graduates, however, have further proven that liberal arts can pave the way for an individual’s success in the corporate world (Linshi, 2015; Cutrone & Nisen, 2012).
The intense competition in the employment sector, unstable state of economic growth, mounting cost of college education, and other concerns have placed an intense amount of pressure on students when it comes to choosing their major. When viewed from a “practical” standpoint, STEM and business fields are likely to offer good career opportunities than liberal arts studies.
Based on reports, however, it appears that employers recognize the value of liberal arts when it comes to equipping graduates and with skills necessary to excel and succeed in today’s business landscape, such as interpersonal, critical thinking, and problem-solving capabilities. And while it is true that a liberal arts degree does not prepare students for specific career paths, it opens a broader range of opportunities in a crowded job marketplace.