10 reasons a liberal arts degree is still worth it

Jane Wiseman
Jane Wiseman

Jane Wiseman has over 30 years of experience helping improve government operations, as an appointed official in government and as a financial advisor and consultant to government. Her current consulting, research, and writing focus on government innovation and data-driven decision-making. She is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and at the National Academy of Public Administration.

10 reasons a liberal arts degree is still worth it

    Is a liberal arts degree really worth it these days? As a professor to college-level liberal arts students, to even ask this question may seem blasphemous. Yet, in today’s environment there are a growing number of well-paying jobs that can be filled with certificates or 2-year degrees, and large technology companies like IBM are moving away from the 4-year degree and toward skills-based hiring. Add to this rising costs of higher education and the crushing levels of student loan debt, and you begin to see why some ask this question.

    Here are my top reasons to choose a liberal arts degree, preferably a 4-year one, if the student can do so without being saddled by debt, through some combination of loans, scholarships and earnings, or if fortunate enough, with resources provided by benefactors such as family.

    1. Critical thinking and problem solving

    liberal arts degrees help with critical thinking skills

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that employers often rank critical thinking and communication above technical skills when seeking new hires, and that these skills are the hallmark of a liberal arts education.

    Critical thinking and problem solving are learned by exploring new ideas, struggling to make sense of them, and then finding meaning where the mind had previously held chaos.

    These skills do not develop quickly and need the nurturing of instructors or tutors invested in helping the student gain knowledge. The best liberal arts schools pride themselves on this, and it is among the key differentiators from technical and trade schools.

    2. Long-term financial success

    liberal arts degree holders experience faster wage growth over time

    Research shows that while liberal arts graduates may not make as much right after graduation as those with STEM degrees, the average liberal arts graduate earns $20,000 more than the average high school graduate, and the top 25 percent earn $90,000 or more per year. Further, their wage growth accelerates in their 30s and 40s, when they experience the fastest salary growth compared to other areas of study.

    In addition to such national studies, several notable individuals have attributed their success to their liberal arts education, including Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and the CEOs of Whole Foods and American Express.

    3. Developing writing skills

    liberal arts degrees help students polish writing skills

    William Zinsser, in his landmark book, On Writing Well, points out that good writing starts with clear thinking. Clear thinking may be the birthright of some, but most of us have to be taught to structure our thoughts and to craft logical and persuasive arguments. This is learned via repetition in essays and research papers and various written responses on exams.

    The longer we’re in school, the more practice we get at presenting our thoughts in a way that a teacher can understand. This is important, because a national study showed that most high schools do not teach writing, so even those who are very bright when they head off to college have very little instruction to rely on in becoming good writers.

    As Zinsser points out, this is a skill that takes practice and persistence, and a 4-year liberal arts degree, with examination of varied subject matter, allows the student to hone the craft of writing in a variety of disciplines.

    4. Helping to reach maturity

    4 year degrees give students time to develop cognitively before working

    Researchers at MIT have noted that brain development is not complete until reaching our mid-20s. Their findings show that, “The brain isn’t fully mature at 16, when we are allowed to drive, or at 18, when we are allowed to vote, or at 21, when we are allowed to drink, but closer to 25, when we are allowed to rent a car.”

    If our brain development and overall maturity improve with age, won’t our early career choices as well? Entering the workforce at the earliest age possible (in many states age 16) means starting a career almost a decade before full maturity of the brain.

    Sure, we can grow into our jobs and develop maturity once the career has begun, but if given the luxury to more fully develop before launching into the world of work, we may be better off – and make more mature decisions and fewer mistakes.

    5. Practice making choices

    liberal arts degrees improve decision making skills

    Life offers us many choices, from the mundane what to have for dinner to profound life-altering decisions. A liberal arts degree presents a multitude of choices. What should I major in? Should I also pursue a minor? Should I take the semester or year abroad? Should I stay on campus for the break and work on a research project? Should I try some new extracurricular activities? Should I really sort whites and colors when doing laundry? Should I go with my friends to the party or stay back and study?

    In fact, the “liberal” in liberal arts comes from the same root word as freedom, and allows students the freedom to make many choices of what to study as well as how and where to do it.

    Practice in making choices in college, narrowing the vast funnel of options for study in the liberal arts, helps to refine the decision-making that is needed to develop executive function, an important skill for a successful career. High executive function has been shown not only to improve workforce success but also personal health and wellbeing.

    6. Learn flexibility

    liberal arts degrees help students learn new skills

    According to recent research, today’s jobs require many skills that didn’t even exist 5 years ago. Looking across 15 million job postings, the researchers found that the skills needed to get hired have changed by 37% since 2016 and that the skills needed for three quarters of all jobs have changed more in the last 3 years than in the 3 prior years.

    How can workers be nimble and adapt to new skills? Not by rote repetition of niche skills taught in a certification program, but rather through exploration and curiosity, and relying on intellectual self-confidence that can be gained via the kind of wide-ranging and self-directed studies afforded by liberal arts offerings. This has been borne out by research that shows liberal arts grads are nearly 1.5 times more likely to change careers from their first job to their second, compared to STEM graduates.

    I have personally noticed this same phenomenon – some of the most successful colleagues I’ve encountered over the years are those who had the courage to reinvent themselves by learning new things, and then were able to thrive while the rest of us struggled to keep up. I don’t know if they were primarily fueled by restlessness, curiosity, or fortunate foresight, but those who creatively forged new paths were always liberal arts graduates.

    7. The luxury of time to explore and take chances

    liberal arts degrees allow students more time to study different topics

    A 4-year old knows a whole lot more than a 2-year old. They are bigger, stronger, and have much larger vocabularies. Why is this relevant to the college decision? Because 4 years of higher education provides more time for exploration, for study of topics outside the major.

    For me, this meant an introductory art history course that has fueled a lifelong interest in something that as a government major, I’d never previously considered. Now, my weekends are spent as a volunteer tour guide in a local museum, which certainly would never have crossed my mind had I not in my senior year of college thought “what the heck, I’ll try that course everyone loves so much.”

    8. The element of fun

    liberal arts degrees help you gain essential knowledge and experiences

    Adulthood can be stressful – bills to pay, and for many the responsibilities of caring for family members. Working all but the few weeks of the year that most Americans take for vacation can be draining. For those with the means to do so, putting off adulthood via a college education is a way to accumulate both knowledge and fun experiences along the way, and these can provide energy for the long road ahead.

    9. Lasting friendships

    liberal arts degrees help forge lasting friendships

    There are many ways to make friends, but 4 years of choosing one’s own activities and friends, forging new bonds in the crucible of final exams, first love, first heartbreak and so many other of life’s “firsts” has a way of creating indelible bonds – as well as a valuable network for your future career.

    I for one can say that decades after my college years, when with any 1 or more of the “besties” from that era, I can still be quickly brought to soul-enriching bursts of laughter, so all-encompassing that often I lose my breath or end up with tears of sheer exuberant joy running down my face. Four years was a gift of time that planted seeds of friendship for a lifetime.

    10. Diversity of perspectives

    In a technical or career-focused education, students are surrounded by those pursuing the very same subjects. When a liberal arts student sits down for dinner, she may be surrounded by students of a variety of subjects, ranging from environmental policy to philosophy to education to computer science.

    Hearing such varied perspectives helps to keep our minds open to the fact that our way is not the only way. For my first job out of college, on Wall Street, I was interviewed by some employees who, like me, had studied the practical subjects of government and economics. But I was struck by the intensity of intellect of the French literature and geology majors who interviewed me, and who described how their college training in critical thinking in their disciplines prepared them well for the demands of the job.

    Is a liberal arts degree worth it?

    Not everyone has the luxury of a 4-year liberal arts degree, given the cost and time investment. Yet, even without this opportunity, we can all look for ways to broaden our horizons, open our minds to a free-ranging exploration of a variety of topics, either by surrounding ourselves with interesting people, or by a trip to our local public library. For those with the good fortune to be able to pursue a liberal arts degree, the benefits are many, and lifelong.

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