Liberal Arts Degree: Requirements, Career Opportunities, Salary & Costs

Liberal Arts Degree: Requirements, Career Opportunities, Salary & Costs
Imed Bouchrika by Imed Bouchrika
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

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.

What is liberal arts degree?

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.

liberal arts core career competencies

Key Liberal Arts Statistics

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:

  • There are less than 200 liberal arts colleges in the United States and most of them can be found in Massachusetts, California, and Pennsylvania.
  • For school year 2017-18, liberal arts studies have the most number of graduates from community colleges in the U.S. (NCES, 2019)
  • In a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), among liberal arts students, 41% of respondents agree that liberal arts degrees give competitive advantage as a job candidate while only 5.1% disagree (Koerner, 2018).
  • 93% of employers agree that critical thinking, clear communication, and problem-solving skills are more important than technical skills (AACU, 2014).
  • 4 out 5 employers agree that students must acquire broad knowledge in liberal arts and science (AACU, 2014).
  • In the school year 2017-18, 39% of associate degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions were concentrated in liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities; 8% of bachelor’s degrees conferred focused on social sciences and history (NCES, 2020).
  • Between school years 2000-01 to 2017-18, the number of associate’s degrees conferred in liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities increased by 102%. Meanwhile, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in social sciences and history increased by 39% between 2000–01 and 2011–12, but decreased by 10% in 2017–18 (NCES, 2020).

Source: NCES

What are the requirements to study liberal arts?

Student applicants who plan to take liberal arts degree after high school must fulfill the following basic requirements (Best Colleges, 2018):

Associate degree

  • Application
  • Transcripts

Bachelor’s degree

  • Minimum G.P.A. of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale
  • Application
  • Transcripts
  • Passing test scores required for an undergraduate degree, such as Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or American College Testing (ACT) for postsecondary institutions in the United States.
  • Depending on the school, student applicants may also be required to submit letters of recommendation.

Master’s degree

  • Bachelor’s degree. Most programs do not require a specific field of undergraduate studies to qualify for a master’s in liberal arts degree.
  • Minimum GPA of 3.0
  • Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) test. Depending on the policies of the academic institution, high GRE scores, along with professional experience, can make up for GPAs that fall under the minimum requirement.
  • Application
  • Transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation

Doctorate degree

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 (, 2019).

  • Master’s degree
  • Minimum GPA of 3.0

How long does it take to study liberal arts?

Source: GradSchool

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).

How much does it cost to study liberal arts?

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.

increase in fees of undergraduate degrees

The Best Universities to Study Liberal Arts

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.

top 5 liberal arts colleges, USA

Possible Careers for Liberal Arts Majors and How Much Do Liberal Arts Majors Earn

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):

Source: AACU

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).

Famous People Who Studied Liberal Arts

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).

  • Carly Fiorina. The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard is a graduate of Stanford University where she received her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Medieval History and Philosophy.
  • Steve Ells. Founder and co-CEO of Chipotle, Steve Ells did not take any business classes but graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Art History from the University of Colorado Boulder.
  • Alexa Hirschfeld. A Harvard University graduate, Alexa Hirschfeld completed her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Classics in 2006. The following year, she created Paperless Post with her brother, which is now a multimillion dollar online invitation company.
  • Peter Thiel. He received his undergraduate degree in 20th Century Philosophy from Stanford University and later on became the co-founder and CEO of PayPal.
  • Ken Chenault. He studied history at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and became the third African American to hold the highest corporate seat in a Fortune 500 company when he became the CEO and chairman of American Express.
  • Conan O’Brien. The award-winning late-night talk show host, writer, and executive producer studied history and literature at Harvard University where he graduated magna cum laude in 1985.
  • Salman Rushdie. An Indian-born British author, Rushdie attended the University of Cambridge where he completed his Master’s Degree in History.
  • Oprah Winfrey. Oprah went to Tennessee State University in 1971 to study communications and performing arts. On the year she was supposed to graduate, she dropped out of school to focus on her career. She, however, continued her education in 1987 and completed her bachelor’s degree.

Is having a liberal arts degree still worth it?

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.



  1. AACU (2014). Liberal arts graduates and employment: Setting the record straight. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.
  2. Best Colleges (2018, October 8). Bachelor’s in liberal arts programs guide.
  3. Best Colleges (2018, October 24). Master’s in liberal arts programs guide.
  4. Cognitive-Liberty Online. (n.d.). Trivium & quadrivium.
  5. College Board (2019). Trends in college pricing 2019.
  6. Cutrone, C., & Nisen, M. (2012, December 18). 30 people with ‘Soft’ college majors who became extremely successful. Business Insider.
  7. GradSchools (2019, May 31). PhD in liberal arts & humanities programs.
  8. Humphreys, D., & Kelly, P. (2014). How liberal arts and sciences majors fare in employment: A report on earnings and long-term career paths. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  9. Kleiman, J. (2014, May 1). Why getting a liberal arts college education is not a mistake. Forbes.
  10. Koerner, A. F. (2018, November 1). Career readiness is integral to the liberal arts. NACE.
  11. Merriam-Webster (n.d.). Definition of liberal arts. Dictionary by Merriam-Webster.
  12. Moody, J. (2020, June 19). What you can do with a liberal arts degree: Liberal arts students learn a wide range of skills that prepare them for jobs ranging from advertising to web development. US News.
  13. Morse, R., Brooks, E., & Mason, M. (2019, September 18). How U.S. News calculated the 2020 best colleges rankings. US News.
  14. ACE (2020). NACE salary survey: Starting salary projections for class of 2020 new college graduates. Bethlehem, PA: National Association of Colleges and Employers.
  15. NCES (2020, May). The condition of education: Undergraduate degree fields. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
  16. All Business Schools. (2020, June 24). Read about business administration degrees. All Business Schools.
  17. Rodriguez, M. (2018, November 4). The seven liberal arts – The foundations of modern day education. StMU History Media.
  18. Sigurdson, R. (n.d.). Why study liberal arts? University of Northern
  19. BSV Staff (2019, July 1). What is a liberal arts degree?
  20. (2019, October 12). PhD in liberal arts: Info for aspiring liberal arts doctoral students.
  21. Times Higher Education (2019, December 4). Best liberal arts colleges in the United States 2020. THE World University Rankings.
  22. U.S. News. (2020). National liberal arts colleges. US News.

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