What can you do with a liberal arts degree? "Become a barista at Starbucks and live in your parent’s basement," is one of the sarcastic responses you might hear. However, liberal arts majors are finding a plethora of career options as more companies gain an appreciation for the soft skills honed by those who choose to major in this field.
A survey of executives—including CEOs, presidents, vice presidents, and C-level executives by the Association of American Colleges and Universities revealed:
- 93% of executives say “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems” is more important than a particular degree
- 80% of executives say that regardless of a student’s major, they should have “a broad knowledge” of the liberal arts and sciences
- 80% of executives say schools should place more emphasis on oral and written communication skills
- 71% of executives say schools should place more emphasis on the ability to innovate and be creative
- 74% of executives would “recommend a liberal education to their own child or a young child they know.”
So why do company executives value liberal arts degrees? Investopedia spoke with some experts to find out.
The Degree Checks All of the Boxes
A liberal arts degree checks all of the boxes on the above survey’s checklist, according to Timothy M. O'Donnell, Associate Provost for Academic Engagement and Student Success at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia: “In addition to developing the ability to communicate effectively in speaking and writing, liberal arts students develop the capacity to think critically about complex problems and formulate creative solutions, and also make evidence-based judgments while maintaining a commitment to integrity and intercultural competence,” says O'Donnell.
Thinking Outside the Book
The unique skill sets liberal arts majors posse may make them more innovative than their more technical and scientific peers says Jesse Waters, Director of the English Department’s Bowers Writers House at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania: “Many students in the physical and natural sciences, computer development, engineering, et cetera, are so heavily involved in building a knowledge base that’s oriented to fact-finding, assessments, quantitative analysis and lab work, that little time is left to ask oneself how and why those facts are best applied.”
Waters argues studying the arts gives students a competitive advantage: “A solid grounding in literature, language, history, culture and philosophy gives one a sense of not just how things work, but when and where human interaction is best developed and applied within those fields and when in the past it has failed and found prior successes.”
Innovative thinking is an essential skill that arts students learn says Waters, “The ability to think not outside the box, but rather, outside the book, is a skill liberal grads and humanities students are asked to engage and improve from the day they begin their academic adventures.”
The Leapfrog Effect
O’Donnell admits that technical competence may appear to make graduates in other majors more qualified for future jobs, nevertheless he says: “Employers are increasingly saying the skills, characteristics, and habits of mind inculcated by the liberal arts curriculum distinguish candidates who thrive in their careers.”
Dr. William Carpenter, Chair of the Department of English at High Point University in North Carolina, agrees that liberal arts majors may sometimes begin new jobs with steeper learning curves than some of their peers. However, he says these employees are also more likely to be promoted to a company’s upper ranks,“They usually progress up the ranks of management more quickly because of their critical thinking and interpersonal skills. This is why their median salaries eventually outpace those in many other areas,” says Carpenter.
Jeremy Schifeling, CEO of Break into Tech, has worked for companies like American Express, Apple, and LinkedIn. He thinks liberal arts degrees get a bad rap because people don't really understand how the business world works. For example, he says everyone thinks that the only way to get a job in the tech industry is by earning a computer science degree, but that isn't really the case says Schifeling, “I crunched the numbers on the 500,000 LinkedIn members who work in the U.S. Internet industry and it turns out that fewer than 30,000 have computer science degrees. On the other hand, 10,000 had psychology degrees, 9,000 had English degrees, and 6,000 were history majors.”
According to Schifeling, two-thirds of all tech jobs are non-technical positions in such areas as marketing, finance, PR, legal, etc. “After all, who's going to sell all the cool stuff the techies build? So liberal arts majors end up filling these roles.”
The Bottom Line
More and more companies are realizing the benefits of hiring liberal arts majors. The ability to write and communicate effectively, think critically, and be creative, are skills that are beneficial to any company.