What is the Value of a Liberal Arts Degree?

As America’s educational focus shifts to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, those with a passion for the liberal arts may find themselves wavering on the value of a liberal arts degree. Contrary to the views of some media naysayers, however, there is still a strong market for those with liberal arts degrees and plenty of data to support the idea that liberal arts education can and does open the door for long-term professional success.

“The liberal arts are at the heart of what we value when we speak of a New England College education,” said Inez McDermott, professor of art history at NEC. “Through our studies, we learn to think critically, to write clearly and creatively, to be open to new ideas.”

NEC political science professor Dr. Wayne F. Lesperance Jr. agrees.

“The liberal arts are at the very foundation of our civilization,” he said. “It’s what separates us from a history of tyranny of the mind and the body. Through the liberal arts, we come to think critically, understand our place in the cosmos, appreciate art and literature and come to terms with our very own humanity.”

Key Findings Debunk Myths About Liberal Arts Education

A study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) along with the National Center of Higher Education Management Systems sheds more light on the potential liberal arts graduates have. Its 2014 report, “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment” indicated that liberal arts degrees lay the groundwork for professional success that continues throughout graduates’ careers.

“Recent attacks on the liberal arts by ill-informed commentators and policymakers have painted a misleading picture of the value of the liberal arts to individuals and our communities,” AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider stated in a press release about the study.  “As the findings in this report demonstrate, majoring in a liberal arts field can and does lead to successful and remunerative careers in a wide array of professions.”

In its study of 2010 and 2011 U.S. Census data, the AAC&U revealed information that debunks many of the myths surrounding liberal arts graduates’ potential in the workforce. Some of its key findings include:

  • Liberal arts majors earn more – As it turns out, workers who majored in humanities or social sciences eventually earn more than their professional or pre-professional track counterparts. The study showed that liberal arts majors earned about $2,000 more annually than those who majored in pre-professional or professional fields in their undergraduate days. This tends to occur in peak earnings years, between the ages of 56-60.
  • Unemployment is low – The unemployment rate for recent graduates in liberal arts fields is 5.2%. Mature workers with liberal arts degrees have a 3.5% unemployment rate, which is only .04% higher than rates for graduates with professional or pre-professional degrees.
  • Many liberal arts graduates go on for graduate degrees – There are an estimated 9.6 million people in the country with a bachelor’s in humanities or social sciences. Of that number, some 40% also hold advanced degrees. Those who pursue advanced degrees can see their earnings rise by about $20,000 annually.

Liberal Studies Skills Make the Difference

Liberal arts majors remain in demand largely for the soft, but vital skills these educational tracks deliver, the study concluded. Some of the findings point to these skills fostered in liberal arts education as being valuable to employers in a variety of arenas:

  • Critical thinking
  • Collaborative abilities
  • Communications skills
  • Broad educational backgrounds

NEC professors understand how well the skills and information they impart in the classroom translate to a diversity of fields, making graduates excellent candidates for employers.

“Studying the arts and humanities, in particular, teaches us about and helps us understand human experience, present and past, familiar and global; it helps us find commonalities and differences in our own ideas and beliefs and those of others; it gives us the tools to respond to the world we live in as thoughtful, educated citizens,” Professor McDermott said.

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