Shaming liberal arts majors ignores job market realities

I’ll have you know that I’m very happy with my studies in underwater basket weaving.

I’m actually an English major, but to many of the nation’s academic decision-makers, there isn’t much of a difference.

In our obsession with jobs-based education, the liberal arts have come under siege – budgets are being cut, classes cancelled, and in extreme cases, entire departments slashed in favor of more “job-friendly” fields. Last year, for instance, the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point revealed an ill-fated plan to drop a staggering 13 liberal arts majors to expand studies in fields like business, engineering, and the sciences.

That attitude’s having a serious impact on enrollment. The study, “Saving Liberal Arts: Making the Bachelor’s Degree a Better Path to Success” lists liberal arts degrees falling nationally “by at least 15 percent between 2008 and 2016”; a similar 2019 Forbes article claims English degrees saw a loss of over 12,000 graduates in 10 years.

Rare is the day I can talk about my studies at the family reunion without being met by a tense smile and the ever-awkward, “So what are you gonna do with that?”

These anxieties, though, simply don’t line up with what actual employers are saying.

Treating college solely as a vocational school isn’t just insulting to the professors who’ve dedicated their lives to the humanities. It’s ignoring job market realities – at the expense of talented students’ academic experiences.

In the words of Goldie Blumenstyk, senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Skills matter more than the major. A million job profiles prove it.”

Soft skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and communication are highly sought by potential hirers. SNHU career advisor Linsdet Levesque writes, “[Liberal Arts] graduates can be found in almost all industries and professions. Their ability to think critically, adapt quickly and solve problems is in high demand in STEM and business fields … in areas like marketing, sales, strategy, or relationship-driven work like customer relations and account management.”

Dawn Ross, director of Career Services at FSU, echoed these thoughts. “85% of employers weighed soft skills higher than hard skills” like specialized technical knowledge, she said.

“We had 750 employers come to campus, and probably 750 will stress the importance of these competencies,” she said.

Hard skills are essential in many industries, of course – but in a rapidly changing job market, a liberal arts education offers flexibility and competencies a rigidly technical degree lacks.

Yes, many history majors become teachers, and yes, a Ph.D. program is a natural choice for a philosophy student – but you’re not beholden to typical paths in the way a chemical engineering student might be.

In Blumenstyk’s article, Rob Sentz, chief innovation officer of ESMI – a “market labor analysis company” – stated that “the outcome of the English major looks pretty similar to the outcome of the business major.”

This is in part because of the diverse career paths available. As Ross phrased it, “people often have careers outside of their major.”

Of course, it’s no secret that people seldom go into the liberal arts for the money – but income earnings are generally far less drastic than the Starbucks barista horror stories you’ve heard. Graduates of the liberal arts and sciences make an average wage of $68,343 a year, according to Data USA, making a comfortable living entirely possible.

Many nervous freshmen drop their passions in pursuit of the practical, thinking it prudent in a competitive job market. In many senses, though, employers say otherwise.

Study a subject that gets you out of your dorm bed, not what a listicle tells you to. We need creative, intelligent graduates from all arrays of discipline.

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