It’s no secret that the dynamics surrounding higher education and post-college employment are changing fast these days. The interconnected world we live in is also changing at a quick pace. These changes, fueled by technology, politics, and economics, affects the way we learn, work, play, and connect to each other. It’s exactly for these reasons that there is no better time to invest in a Liberal Arts education.
In the world that awaits future graduates, the competitive edge belongs to those with bright, curious, and agile minds. Objective, technological or scientific knowledge will no longer be enough. The world you or your child will enter after college is already demanding more human-centric solutions to our collective challenges. With this in mind, here are just a few reasons why Liberal Arts education is so valuable.
Today’s world is bound together across borders through digital networks. News can spread in an instant, and change is constant. The future promises to be even more complex. New technologies, like self-driving cars and 3D-printing, are already disrupting the way we work and do business.
The leaders of the future will have to apply novel theories and think across disciplines in order to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. They will be individuals who can “think differently” and challenge the status quo. They will make keen observations, explore new possibilities, and make new and surprising connections.
The goal of Liberal Arts colleges and universities is to cultivate such thought. Though each school’s mission is slightly different, most aim to produce leaders who are lifelong learners, make thoughtful life choices, succeed professionally, and commit themselves to cultural understanding. With a student-centered focus, these schools engage attendees with a wide variety of learning experiences, better preparing them for the challenges of our time.
“I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering…”
-Billionaire Investor, Mark Cuban
The needs and demands of employers reflect these global trends. According to the 2016 Job Outlook survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, hiring personnel increasingly value and prioritize the skills developed in Liberal Arts institutions. Of those polled:
- 80.1% seek candidates with good leadership skills
- 78.9% want graduates with the ability to work in a team
- 70.2% need employees with good written communication skills
- 70.2% look for workers with good problem-solving skills
- 68.9% prioritize employees’ excellent verbal communication skills
Liberal arts graduates, steeped in the arts and humanities, have the advantage here. Many of their schools implement programs promoting collaboration between students of different disciplines. Others take capstone courses and projects where they create original work to demonstrate their mastery of a subject. They’ve also been steeped in writing-intensive courses which develop their written communication skills, and humanities like history or philosophy, which improve their ability to discern context and solve problems. To students and employers alike, the benefits of learning and thinking across disciplines is invaluable.
Leading businesses are taking notice of these facts. Last year, Forbes published an article explaining why companies like Slack and Ubisoft value their employees’ humanities degrees, and why some American entrepreneurs are majoring in philosophy. They all recognize that they need more than technology to gain the competitive edge they seek.
To truly connect, engage, and to sell to clients, they must build bridges between technology and humanity. Their products must relate their target audiences’ histories, cultures, languages, and values. This ability to make such connections is, in essence, what a Liberal Arts education provides.
Hong Kong, Japan, and other Asian countries are in the process of adopting the United States’ Liberal Arts model. In a recent article in The Atlantic, businessman Po Chung and other education reformers have acknowledged that “it’s past time for (Asian) colleges to introduce a broader range of subjects, to promote greater intellectual curiosity, and to foster creative thinking.” Chung and other backers appear to echo the insights of their Silicon Valley counterparts. They, too, are “convinced that these changes will, in turn, build a workforce of rigorous, creative thinkers—just what they think is needed to meet the fast-changing needs of a transforming global economy.”
Forward-thinking leaders are recognizing that the future of work and social well-being depend on more human-centric solutions. Students who narrowly focus on technical skills are limiting their future options. Their abilities to make connections, think outside the box, and market themselves more broadly in the professional world will significantly weaken.
STEM and the Humanities
Tensions are growing in western academia around the humanities. Citing a shortage of scientists and engineers, some are framing the humanities as an ‘unnecessary indulgence,’ pressuring students and academics alike to hone in on STEM (Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology) majors.
Countering this notion is computer science educator Valerie Barr, who adamantly defends the virtues of the arts and humanities, deeming them essential to her field. Her view echoes those explored in the Forbes article cited earlier. She writes:
“…those who excel in STEM understand that there are non-technical considerations that should guide their work, and those who study humanities understand that there are powerful problem solving mechanisms and tools that can open up new avenues of application for their knowledge. We need those with strength in the humanities to feel comfortable talking with those who have strength in STEM, and vice versa. This isn’t either-or, we have to expose students to both.”
While Barr’s view is insightful, it hardly settles the debate, as emerging studies suggest there is far more to the humanities than its detractors claim. While its benefits may not be immediately obvious, the arts and humanities are far more than a simple “indulgence.” They are a necessity.
For good reason, leadership, though hard to define, is at the top of employer’s wishlists. The leaders sought by hiring managers are empathetic visionaries. They know how to collaborate with a group and guide them through to the end of projects. In contrast, the available applicants are often people who look for the “right answer” given to them by their superiors, rather than appropriate solutions. They tend to be better trained in rote memorization, not the more subtle, interpersonal, and agile thinking skills of leaders.
This is where the value of a liberal arts degree becomes clearer. New data suggests that the smaller class sizes and unique programs of Liberal Arts colleges and universities cultivate the leadership qualities sought. In a recent study (previous link), graduates who talked with faculty members about nonacademic and academic subjects outside class are 25-45% more likely to become leaders in their localities or professions. When the discussions include peace, justice, and human rights, those numbers jump to 27-52%. In this light, liberal arts degrees become assets to a job market that favors leaders.
|Field of study||Leadership Skill Gained|
|English||Writing and Communication|
There is a common belief that liberal arts graduates earn less than others. However, recent research finds that this is only true for the first few years after graduation. In fact, a recent study finds a high correlation between a broad undergraduate education and financial success. Those who take the arts and humanities in addition to their main field of study are 31-72% more likely than others to have higher-level positions and earn more than $100,000. This should come as no surprise to us at this point considering how arts and humanities cultivate the skills that are valued by top companies.
Putting the Myth of “Worthless Degrees” to Rest
Tomorrow’s challenges call for creative, collaborative workers to reinvigorate and reshape our social and educational structures, and our business models. To do so, students need open minds and rich, diverse educational opportunities.
A Liberal Arts education expands students’ abilities to think through various challenges, contradictions, and tensions. It helps them recognize that the only change worth working for is the one that always keeps sight of their shared humanity.
That’s why a Liberal Arts education is a necessity in today’s world, and it’s time to put the myth of “worthless degrees” to rest.
This article was edited and co-authored by: Tal Leeds