Facing the Facts of Liberal Arts: Are our Degrees Still Relevant?

With economic strife rising, it is no surprise that the value of college degrees has been widely debated. Most noticeably, while many economists argue that a vocational degree or bachelor’s from a state university is certainly better than no degree at all, in terms of preparing a student for employment post-graduate, the question of liberal arts degrees often hangs in the air.

The question has risen up more recently as Britain makes a great shift towards a path it has long avoided for its undergraduate institutions — liberal arts. Known for its narrow focus of students choosing one path for study at the age of sixteen and the requirement of both Latin and Greek study, the liberal arts’ wide scope of focus failed to reach Britain. While there are exceptions to this (Cambridge and Durham Univ.), in May of this year, Britain began to embrace more of the liberal arts instead of its more “classical approach.” According to the Wall Street Journal article “In Britain, a Return to the Idea of the Liberal Arts,” the prestigious King College London makes this change most hardily, allowing students to “study both the arts and the sciences or to take courses across a range of disciplines.” It is a “big risk” but directors of the liberal arts programs at King College and University College London hope it will work out in the schools’ and the students’ favor through the results of the students’ final examination scores.

Did Britain’s liberal arts reform arrive too late? Across the pond in America, many humanities professors in schools across the country grow more and more worried about the dwindling number of liberal arts majors. In the New York Times article based on Stanford University’s (Stanford, Calif.) liberal arts program, reporter Tamar Lewin notes: “Some commenters sounded the alarm based on federal data showing that nationally, the percentage of humanities majors hovers around 7 percent — half the 14 percent share in 1970.” Possible explanations for the drop could be attributed to the worsening economy and worries of shortage of employment as well as increased attention to “science and technology.”

Furthermore, much research shows that it is the parents of students who are pushing toward a less liberal college experience. Could it be because parents would have to foot the bill, either directly or through taxes? Forbes’ contributor Tim Worstall, argues for dismantling liberal arts programs entirely. Though Worstall is a self-proclaimed “libertarian/ classical liberal type,” his argument, like many of the college debates these days, is based from an economic prospective. Because of the increasing number of students using student loans to back their undergraduate plans (funds that taxpayers that provide) and then ending up in jobs (if they can find one) that cause them to take long periods of time to pay back said funds, Worstall states: “We would though suggest that perhaps the rest of us, in our guise as taxpayers, should not be paying for what is clearly an entirely outdated, into’d the dustbin of history, method of doing these things.” So is the answer to turn to a STEM degree?
You may not have to. In a recent article by Peter Cappelli of the Wall Street Journal, narrowing your degree to a specialized field just because of current employment trends can be disastrous. No one can predict the future of employment trends, and in many cases, “Today’s jobs aren’t necessarily tomorrow’s.” Furthermore, specializing your degree can lead to fewer jobs available if that particular field is not hiring. For example, a graduate with a degree in Marketing or Economics is more likely to have more options than one who majored in Hospitality Management.

A major difference between Cappelli’s article and others supporting liberal arts degrees is that he does not push towards the “As a liberal arts major, you learned how to write and research well — use this to your advantage!” assertion that we always hear. He (and polls from WSJ readers) support the notion that although post-graduate employment is important, it shouldn’t be the only factor in choosing a school and field of study. Most importantly, employers praise work experience over any other factor of the graduate’s undergraduate experience. Cappelli explains: “If [employers] have a choice between hiring someone fresh out of a hospitality-degree program or someone who doesn’t have that degree but who has run a restaurant, they will choose the latter.”

In addition to focusing on work experience, many analysts agree that whether a student attends a liberal arts school or state university, he or she should take advantage of the resources the school offers in order to offset the cost of undergraduate education and possibly aid in graduating within four to six years. Fortunately, since Amherst College offers many resources from the Career Center’s extensive services, the Dean of Student’s academic support and much more, the $64,000 dollar price tag is put to good use.

Post-graduation plans aside, many humanities professors across the country urge their students to focus on receiving a well-rounded education and that although liberal arts students may have a tougher time to getting their first job than their STEM counterparts, they are better off in the long run.