Is A Liberal Arts Education Worth It?

by Guest Blogger on 2010-07-2923

I confess: I am the product of a liberal arts education. Graduating with a degree in English in (mumbles year quickly under breath…), I was often asked if I planned to be a teacher. Fact is, I really had no plan — I went to school, studied (mostly) things that interested me, graduated and then learned very quickly during a tough job market that my four years of higher education really didn’t amount to squat in the real world.

Or did it?

The Silicon Valley Blogger raised the issue of whether a college education was worth the cost not so long ago and a recent story in the Wall Street Journal blasted the myth of college graduates out-earning their non-degreed counterparts exposing that the long touted almost million dollar earnings gap was probably overstated by about 75%.

Is A Liberal Arts Education Worth It?

There’s little argument that for those planning technical (computer, engineering), medical, legal and even business (accounting) careers, college is not only worth the expense, but is, in fact, necessary. But what about the lovers of literature, history, sociology or the classics? (I once knew a guy who was getting his Master’s in the Classics at Harvard. I asked what he planned to do with a Master’s in Classics and his reply, “I’m going to write a book and make millions.” Okay, not exactly realistic, but at least he had a plan…)

Is there any reason in this era of sky-rocketing tuition, shrinking economy and increasingly more specialized job market to pursue a degree in the Humanities?

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I still encounter the occasional raised eyebrow over my English degree, to which I quip, “I speak and write it fluently!” Although I cannot for the life of me remember much of what I studied in college, I’ve come to appreciate the experience as a whole more than when I was a student.

Here’s why I feel the college experience is still valid for the liberal arts major:

  1. College provides an important transition buffer between high school graduation and the full responsibilities of adulthood. Living away from home and being responsible for managing a class schedule, keeping up with coursework, dealing with professors helps pave the way for “grown-up” responsibilities of full-time jobs, transportation, and rent/mortgages down the road.
  2. College exposes you to people and activities you might not otherwise experience. Especially if you choose a large and diverse university with students of all races and ethnicities–not to mention a decent-sized international student population. Plus, where better to hone your hacky-sack or beer pong skills?
  3. College teaches how to interact with a variety of persons and personalities. Whether it’s an obnoxious roommate, tedious professor, cranky admin staffer or belligerent frat boys, the opportunity to brush-up on your interpersonal skills is priceless.  Plus, one or more of the people you meet during your college days could become a lifelong friend, partner or business networking connection.
  4. College (and liberal arts especially) broadens your world view and can change your perspective. I may not remember much of what I learned in college, but studying mythology, reading the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante or Truman Capote and even the dreaded, dry semester of Macro Economics, opened my mind and helped to re-shape my outlook and opinions.
  5. Liberal Arts coursework excels in helping to learn how to coherently express oneself. I may joke about being able to speak and write English fluently, but those who major in the Liberal Arts spend a great deal of time reading and writing, and those polished communication skills come in handy in the long term.
  6. College teaches you how to play the “game” and how to determine cost/value ratios. Cost/value ratios don’t sound like the domain of a liberal arts major, but one of the things I quickly learned in school was to quickly ascertain what it would take to get a good grade from a specific professor, how much time/effort was involved and calculate whether or not it was worth my time. This skill led me to drop a creative writing class (despite my love of writing) being taught by a professor whose droning monotone had me paying more attention to the dance class in the next building rather than to the intricacies of creating impassioned prose.
  7. College is a bit of an endurance test and you do get points for finishing. Ten to twenty years down the road, your degree-status might not have such relevance in the job market, but in the early stages of your career, a degree can be a determining factor in whether to hire or not (many companies will weed out applicants without degrees) as well as starting salaries. And despite the aforementioned Wall Street Journal findings, many times that starting salary is the base from which your earnings trajectory begins. So it makes sense that in many cases, a non-degreed person would be lagging behind in earnings over the course of a lifetime.

So in my opinion, a liberal arts education still has value. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go into deep debt to obtain your degree. Consider lower cost state universities vs. the high tuition of private schools; grants, work study, federal student aid options; and even saving money by attending a community college for the first two years and then transferring to a university setting for the final two years of your degree.

But above all, in order to make your college education worth the cost, make the effort to fully experience and appreciate it!

Do you have a liberal arts degree?  Do you think your college education was worth it?

Stella Louise is finally making good use of her English degree as the editor of the personal finance blog.

Copyright © 2010 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

bb July 29, 2010 at 12:20 pm

The ideal solution is to get a major in something useful (engineering, business, pre-med, pre-law) and another major for your interest.

mary b July 29, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Well it used to be that one went to college to become more educated, therefore liberal arts degrees would have been the norm. Of course only the elite went to college then. Now we mostly go to college to train to do something, so a liberal arts degree seems like a waste of time to many people.

Somewhere in the middle is where we decided someone was undesirable without a college degree. Kind of silly when you look at some very successful people who did not go to or finish college… Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Woody Allen, Harry Truman, Leo Tolstoy, Robert DeNiro or Ansel Adams.

Kosmo @ The Soap Boxers July 29, 2010 at 1:34 pm

I graduated with dual BS degrees in Accounting and Marketing with a minor in English (focus on pre-19th century British Lit).

There were days when I had Advanced Income Tax, Shakespeare. and Consumer Behavior back to back.

I work in IT and really don’t directly use either of my degrees 🙂

Jimmy July 29, 2010 at 6:05 pm

I’m a sociology major and went into it knowing it’s pretty much useless, but when I asked my advisor what the fastest way to graduate; it was to be a sociology major lol so I did it. But you get out of college what you want to get out of it because contrary to what most people are taught growing up, if you wanna make money or become wealthy, college is not the way to do it.

Silicon Valley Blogger July 29, 2010 at 6:40 pm

I’ll bet that there are more people who are wealthy with a college education than with no college education. I’m not saying you can’t be wealthy without higher education, just saying that people with a higher education are richer on average than those who don’t have a degree.

So what is college really? To me, it’s an insurance plan. One that you fall back on in case the luck you were banking on isn’t enough to get you where you want to go.

Michael Harr @ TodayForward July 29, 2010 at 9:20 pm

@SVB – I like your advice at the end with keeping a lid on costs for a degree that doesn’t translate as directly to earnings as one in engineering or other more specialized fields. Ultimately, a liberal arts degree’s value is largely built on the type of person you become after graduation as formed through the process of earning the degree. My wife was a communications major and now has the title of national accounts director. Pretty sure she wasn’t targeting that job when she graduated, but she certainly gained from here college experience both in and out of the classroom.

Also, on your comment to Jimmy, while the synthesized earnings cited are no doubt inflated and lack in properly accounting for opportunity cost, there is also no doubt that the insurance policy you speak of – fewer and shorter bouts of unemployment – is worth the price of admission.

Lloyd Burrell @ Office Desk Reviews July 30, 2010 at 1:03 am

I think the whole idea behind liberal arts education is that it makes the young think differently. This is easy to prove, but harder to deal with. For example, be sure that an IT graduate would ask him or herself this question once in a lifetime, whereas you probably do it every week. This gives you the power to question yourself and learn from it. So yes, such education is always beneficial in the long run.

Funny about Money July 30, 2010 at 7:03 pm

You’re not alone in thinking a liberal arts degree has significant value. Did you see today’s story in the NY Times about medical schools admitting students without pre-med backgrounds. They WANT majors in the liberal arts.

Imagine that!

Donna Freedman July 30, 2010 at 9:13 pm

I did it bass-ackward: Worked for several decades, THEN got the degree, finishing in December 2009 at the age of 52. Thus the question of whether it will translate to a real job isn’t quite answerable.
Neither is the question of “Was it worth it?” Or, rather: I can answer the question (“Hell, yes!”) but I can’t quite explain why.

“Because it helped me learn to ask the right questions” is as close as I can get.
Incidentally, my degree is the most liberalartish of them all: a B.A. in the Comparative History of Ideas.

Terry Griffith July 31, 2010 at 6:13 am

I would not trade my liberal arts education for anything. I went to the University of Wisconsin to be educated, not “trained.” I learned to think—to be a critical thinker. I then went to a technical school for an Associate Degree and was “trained” in photography. I do value both experiences. They complement each other. Education should not always be equated to $$$$$$$$!

Nicole July 31, 2010 at 9:11 am

The college degree is definitely a coming-of-age experience. A good college will teach you how to think and give you skills valuable to your employer no matter what the major. The neat thing about whatever you major in is that it trains your mind to think like a mathematician or think like a philosopher etc. You’re better able to process the world around you by training it to fit constructs in your mind. That is valuable, and employers do value these different ways of approaching problems.

I’m a bit leery of suggesting cheap state schools as a blanket statement though. (Some state schools are as good as or better than more expensive privates, but…) Some of our graduate students from certain unnamed colleges and universities seem to have just gotten another 4 years of high school instead of actually learning how to think. That is a huge PITA, especially since they have enormous cognitive dissonance when they’re asked to do something that isn’t just rote memorization and they tend to take it out on the poor first semester professor (who are generally the nontenured youngins). But we learn them good eventually.

Brick July 31, 2010 at 4:46 pm

I agree with the concepts articulated in points one through seven. Yet through some really bad choices I’ve apparently made, AND an economy that has shed 8.5 MILLION “yobs,” my liberal arts degree in political science doesn’t keep me warm at night as I sleep in my car…

Not too worry, Congress is embarking on a PAID six week ‘run for re-election’ recess. When they get back AFTER Labor Day, there will only be FOUR MILLION AMERICANS who have exhausted their unemployment benefits 🙂

puzzled July 31, 2010 at 5:05 pm

is liberal arts a waste? Hell, Liberals are a waste! especially other people’s money!!

acer July 31, 2010 at 8:18 pm

This will sound very “square” and will doubtless be considered irrelevant to the discussion, but the historic purpose of pursuing a degree in the liberal arts is (or was) to obtain an education — period. The original mission of the curriculum was three-fold: (1) to give the student a broad yet solid base of knowledge covering all aspects of human endeavor through the ages; (2) to develop character in the student by inculcating an informed philosophic perspective on the world in tandem with a structured and life-long ethic; (3) to teach the student to think clearly and logically so as to discern between what is true and good and what is erroneous and superfluous (i.e., one learns how to detect bull@*#% coming at you from fifty paces away).

As for jobs and careers, I believe that a liberal arts graduate possesses the tools to learn any skill requisite to any job. [Human resource directors have always recognized this potential in an applicant.] The rest is up to the individual to utilize those tools with initiative and with confidence in one’s abilities.

puzzled July 31, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Liberal Art Students have no intention of doing anything with their lives. It is the easy way out, and they will just become vampires of the taxpayers. Because they are not working (the degree don’t do squat) they have all the time in the world to push their far left agenda in this country, and try to create work for other toads such as themselves while at the same time destroying our economy, and our country. The comment that hospitals are looking for such degrees is because they created the demand by helping socializing the medical field in their spare time of doing nothing. This will further put our country into more debt, and it has also led to more unconstitutional decisions by other liberals in Washington that further rape us of our Liberties. Thanx a bunch guys!

Tony August 1, 2010 at 3:51 am

I used to recruit graduates for the IT department (until a few years ago for obvious reasons). Successful hires were often from an arts background (particularly Historians) rather than IT. Our company was happy to train bright people in whatever IT skills were lacking, but we needed people who could communicate well, work in teams, understand complex documents (specifications rather than “old” texts), etc.

(IT graduate and an MBA, so I’m not biased.)

Silicon Valley Blogger August 1, 2010 at 8:55 am

I think someone is confused here: liberals vs liberal arts? “Puzzled”, yours is a misplaced rant about something else altogether. “Puzzled” seems puzzled.

discernment_czar August 1, 2010 at 11:22 am

In my experience as one who hires often, most non-technical managerial jobs (of which there are many) require a degree and experience. So too do the jobs that are tapped for the managerial positions. Usually the type of degree is irrelevant, and most employers also do not care where the degree came from. Get your foot in the door with the degree, get the experience, and then get the top position (and pay) based on effort. Liberal arts degrees are just as valid as others, provided you put out the effort to achieve. My advice to Liberal Arts grads is to look for a company that actually makes a product. Non-technical, degree-required jobs abound in manufacturing.

CreditShout August 2, 2010 at 1:45 pm

As soon as I saw this heading, I immediately thought COMMUNICATION!!! I was happy it was included in your list. I am an English education major, and I have better communication skills than anyone I know. I use this skill in all of my classes, so even though I’m terrible at math, I still impress my professor with my reasoning skills, and he doesn’t mind staying after class to go over something again for the third time…I wish people would stop bashing liberal arts. We are the creative forces behind every idea!

Bret @ Hope to Prosper August 4, 2010 at 5:38 pm

I’m an IT Manager and I have a computer science degree. I was actually a business major, but I took the computer degree instead. In my career, the most useful classes I took were in Accounting. They have been even more valuable to me than programming languages and data structures. Understanding the business subjects definitely helped me to move into management. If I ever go out on my own, knowing Accounting and Business Law will be huge.

I enjoyed taking philospohy, sociology and world civilization. And, I’m glad that I’m well-rounded in my education. But, the computer and business classes are what have furthered my career and put money on the table.

Regarding Tony’s comment about companies being willing to train employees, this hasn’t been my experiece at all. I used to be a Technical Instructor and I have seen training budgets slashed dramatically. Most companies now expect you to have the necessary skills before you walk in the door.

Nicole August 17, 2010 at 8:38 am

I’m In college now and majoring in, well i have no idea, and I’m about to start my third year. But even with the insecurity of where this education will take me I by no means regret my decision to go to college; I’m learning a lot about people, life and myself, like you said i think it’s a very important buffer between high school and the real world.

Gryphem June 8, 2011 at 9:50 am

I would like to let you know that I have posted a link to this post on my blog here. I appreciate your common sense approach.
– Gryphem

Gryphem June 8, 2011 at 9:54 am

Response to “Puzzled”:

I am a Liberal Arts major. I have defended your sorry butt in three wars, educated your children for a decade and a half, and paid more taxes than you’ll ever pay in your worst nightmare. Stop stereotyping, stop hating, and worry about making yourself a better person instead of insulting good people.

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