The Liberal Arts Major: Would you like fries with that?

The engineering major asks, "How does it work?"


The accounting major asks, "How much does it cost?"


The liberal arts major asks, "Would you like fries with that?"


Yea, yea… Not so fast.

Wherever we speak across the country, we're asked by parents how to find out about outcomes for graduates. They want to know how they can justify a Classics or English or Art major when STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields are a sure thing with sizable salaries. And if you only read the headlines in the New York Times and other fashionable news outlets, you'd think that the liberal arts degree was experiencing death by a thousand cuts. One recent headline: "There's no place for the liberal arts in the job market."

Writing in the Wall Street Journal last year, Jane Shaw opined: “Many liberal-arts graduates, even from the best schools, aren’t getting jobs in large part because they didn’t learn much in school. They can’t write or speak well or intelligently analyze what they read.”

So what can you do with THAT degree?

Well, as it turns out quite a lot. The "liberal" in liberal arts refers not to politics, but to the original meaning of the word: "unrestricted." In fact, students pursuing a liberal arts education are called on to examine problems and issues from multiple vantage points and learn how to think, communicate, question, and probe.  The rationale behind a liberal education is that the world is changing rapidly and training for a specific discipline or job is ultimately less practical than learning how to be ready for a world unknown.

Two recent studies by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, found that, on average, at peak earning ages, liberal arts majors earn about $2,000 more than pre-professional and professional majors and can nearly double their job prospects – and boost their starting salaries to boot – by picking up a few technical skills before they graduate -- like marketing, social media and data management.

And if you're still not convinced take a look at the majors of Carly Fiornia, former CEO of Hewlett Packard; CNN founder Ted Turner; "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling; Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and a few others,courtesy of Carolyn Gregoire in the Huffington Post . Maybe you'll think twice about an English or Classics major. Sure it's important to think about starting salaries as new graduates enter the workforce. But we recommend an open mind. Here's to peak earning years…




I think you need to add that old investment disclaimer, "Past performance is no guarantee of future results." Investing in a college degree used to be a "sure thing" investment, like the advice that every family should save up and buy a house. The housing market and the new-college-grad market have both crashed in this recession, and the recovery has been uneven. The market for new law school grads has also crashed, and that used to be a secure gateway to a higher salary for history and other liberal arts majors as well.

The liberal arts grads "at their peak earning years" graduated in a different world. More entry level jobs have been replaced by computers, foreign call centers, etc. The question is still open how well the younger generation will do.

I think it's still true that getting a degree is better than not doing so (even if the major is not a "trendy" one), but if the student has loans, the risks of ending up financially worse off despite the degree increase quickly.

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