Have you ever noticed that when the conversation turns to the idea of a liberal arts degree, you always get some version of these myths?
- “If you graduate with a liberal arts degree, you won’t get a good job.”
- “A liberal arts program doesn’t teach the right skills for the workforce.”
- “Liberal arts degrees are useless for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). You’re better off with a tech degree.”
- “Liberal arts are for students who can’t make it in the tough programs.”
You can probably name more, but these are the Big 4 on the “Here’s My Opinion On Why You’d Be Nuts to Get a Liberal Arts Degree” list.
However, not everyone is cut out for the techy side of college—or life. So, if your heart and talents lean toward the liberal arts side of the college curriculum, let’s give you some solid comebacks for the next time someone wants to tell you that degree is a waste of your time. Because the fact is, liberal arts is an excellent place to prepare for your future—whether you dream of being the next J.K. Rowling or the next Bill Gates.
Busting the Myths
First, let’s push back on Myth Number 1: the idea that liberal arts majors can’t look forward to a good job after graduation. The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) reports that while a large segment of liberal arts graduates choose social services careers, you’ll also find liberal arts grads who are attorneys, judges, managers, teachers, education administrators, CEOs, lawmakers, clergypersons, accountants and auditors, and marketing and sales managers.
That’s because the liberal arts focus on communication, thinking and problem-solving transitions well into many different fields. Think about it: if it didn’t, would the same AAC&U report show that four out of five employers believe that all students should experience the liberal arts curriculum? Or that 93% of employers agree that a candidate’s demonstrated capability for critical thinking, clear communication and complex problem-solving is more important than their undergrad major? Take that, Myth Number 2—those appear to be exactly the right skills for the workforce!
Even leaders at Microsoft believe that a liberal arts curriculum will be essential to future artificial intelligence (AI) development. In Microsoft’s book The Future Computed the authors write, “Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.” Which effectively takes care of Myth Number 3, that liberal arts degrees will be useless in STEM, wouldn’t you say?
Now let’s bust Myth Number 4, which in some ways is the most maddening—and, not gonna lie, possibly insulting—of all: That liberal arts majors are liberal arts majors because they can’t make it in any other discipline. Where to start with this one? Oh, yes. Grrrr. Followed by a gentle suggestion to read the previous three paragraphs of this article. And then a reminder that there are many different types of intelligence. Some people are math wizards. Some people live for science. Others of us can take a so-so sentence and turn it into a thing of beauty.
“Without a liberal arts education, even if you’re in a technical job, you can’t be innovative,” says DaMaris Hill, assistant professor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of English. “We teach how to access the imaginative and critical skills that have always been available to us from birth. Rather than presenting drill sets and technical exercises for people to perform in an automatic space, we actually teach them to innovate. So, without a humanities education, I don’t know how what we call scientific progress or progress in business would actually happen.”
A survey from the National Academy of Sciences appears to agree. They found that almost 20% of scientists elected into the academy over a two-year period came from a liberal arts college or university—even though only 3% of college graduates attended such a school.
The “Universal Education”
Hmm. Maybe a better name for liberal arts would be “Universal Education.” It certainly fits since, according to the AAC&U definition, the liberal arts curriculum:
- Provides you with a broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture and society), as well as in-depth study in your specific area of interest
- Helps you develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong, transferrable intellectual skills like communication, analytical and problem-solving skills—and the ability to apply that knowledge and skills in real-world settings
- Teaches you how to think, not what to think
- Gives you exposure to the works of great thinkers and writers, the arts, philosophy, history and theology
- Prepares you to deal with complexity, diversity and change
As you can see, there are so many ways a liberal arts degree can translate into…well, pretty much anything you want to do with your life, if it’s a program that speaks strongly to you.
That’s why it’s important to choose not only the right direction, but the right place to get your liberal arts education. Although there are a number of options for continuing your education post-high school—public universities, private colleges or universities, community colleges, trade schools and certificate programs—the decision of where to find the full liberal arts curriculum basically comes down to a public or private university.
To help you make your decision, let’s take a look at the difference between the two.
Public vs Private: What’s Right for You
- Offers both undergraduate and graduate studies
- Large class size: can be up to 200-400 students in general education classes
- Broad curriculum: Many programs and variations on majors
- Focus is often on pre-professional programs: e.g. architecture, engineering, nursing, law, medicine, etc.
- Teaching assistants handle many classes; professor interaction can be limited to office hours
- Research funding usually means the focus is on faculty research
- Institution is generally secular in nature
Private College or University
- Specializes in undergraduate studies
- Small class size: usually 15-50 students in general education classes
- More focused curriculum: emphasis on liberal arts/“universal education”
- Focus is on transferrable intellectual and practical skills: communication, analytical, problem-solving, and experiential learning (arts, philosophy, history, etc.)
- Students have direct access to faculty, for a more personalized experience
- Students have the opportunity to participate in research with faculty
- Faith-based institutions are available for students who would like their education to reflect their beliefs and world view
Most people (understandably) assume that the only difference between a public and private university lies in their sizes. But as this chart shows, there are a number of other factors to consider to be sure you get the college experience you’ve always dreamed of.
And of course, the most important consideration: How prepared you’ll be for a fast-moving, crazy, wonderful world that changes by the day—and is changing faster as time goes on.
When you think about it, many of the careers that will exist 50 years from now haven’t even been imagined yet. As proven by the number of successful professionals who started their careers with a liberal arts degree—and those four out of five employers who believe all students should experience the liberal arts curriculum—liberal arts grads have consistently proven to be some of the best prepared and most adaptable of today’s workforce.
There’s a whole universe of opportunity out there waiting for those who are ready to take advantage of it.
Are you ready?
If you’re looking for a local, personalized college experience to help prepare you for making your mark on the world, we invite you to learn more about Rochester University. Here at RU, you’ll achieve the academic excellence, global awareness, character and leadership you need to succeed in a changing, exciting and inspiring world. Visit us at rc.edu today.
“Myths About Liberal Arts Degrees,” by Guilford College, guilford.edu, April 12, 2018.
“Debunking common misconceptions about liberal arts degrees,” by Study International staff, studyinternational.com, March 27, 2019.
“Liberal Arts Graduates and Employment: Setting the Record Straight,” by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, aacu.org, copyright 2014. (Note: link opens to a PDF file)
“5 Myths About Liberal Arts Colleges—Set the Record Straight: An Education in the Liberal Arts is a Great Decision,” by Tuajuanda C. Jordan, huffpost.com, May 24, 2015.
“Myth vs. Reality: The Value of a Liberal Arts Degree in Today’s World,” by Lindsey Piercy, unknow.uky.edu, September 6, 2018.
“Liberal Arts are essential to future of tech, says Microsoft,” by Study International Staff, studyinternational.com, January 24, 2018.
“Putting your liberal arts degree to work,” by Domingo Angeles and Brian Roberts, bls.gov, August, 2017. https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2017/article/liberal-arts.htm