As one expert observes, 'Rapid technological change makes the case for (academic) breadth even stronger. A four-year college degree should prepare students for the next 40 years of working life, and for a future that none of us can imagine.'
You’d expect Forbes, the iconic business magazine, to herald careers in finance. You might not expect Forbes to argue that a liberal-arts education is not only a good way, but, in fact, the best way to launch a career in finance. Yet it did just that.
I write to share this and other things should be unsurprising. A sizeable body of research shows the enduring value of a liberal-arts education.
Writing in Forbes in August 2021, George Malkin, quantitative finance program director at the Stevens Institute of Technology, noted that college graduates who earn degrees in engineering, science and technology tend to earn higher starting salaries than those who study, say, English, history or sociology.
But in the field of finance, he contends, success depends on “the ability to cast a broad net and to understand and stay open to events and developments in all areas of the economy. And to see and understand the interconnections.”
A knowledge of history is a permanent asset. Skill in a language is a permanent asset. The liberal arts are the edge that students are looking for, the best foundation for a successful career in the finance industry.”
He gives an example: You’re working in the financial sector and want to understand the financial prospects of the Ford Motor Company. Ford’s future is affected, in part, by the European Union, Italian banks, Italian politics, German history, Brexit, the Treaty of Rome, World War II, Bismarck, Italian and German unifications in 1871, Gibbons’ Decline and Fall, the Medici, opera and Dante.
Malkin then poses a rhetorical question: “What sort of education does this call for?”
Hint: It’s not an education that focuses only (or largely) on technical skills. The marketability of specific technical skills, he notes, wanes with time, as new tech skills—and younger workers—gain favor.
“Critical thinking, on the other hand, is a permanent asset,” Malkin writes. “A knowledge of history is a permanent asset. Skill in a language is a permanent asset. The liberal arts are the edge that students are looking for, the best foundation for a successful career in the finance industry.”
I outline his reasoning here because it contradicts what counts as conventional wisdom, that a liberal-arts education might not be a gateway to a successful career. Particularly now, old myths about the liberal arts are destructive.
During the pandemic, some prospective students who wanted to go to college were forced by the tough economic reality to take jobs instead. Many of those would-be students come from underrepresented populations, such as those who would be the first in their families to go to college.
They might embrace the conventional wisdom about the “return on investment”—or ROI—of college degrees, and they might choose not to study a discipline that ignites their intellectual passion. That would be not only their loss, but also ours.
I have made this point before, but it bears repeating: People with college degrees—regardless of whether those degrees were in the arts and humanities, social sciences or natural sciences—enjoy consistently lower rates of unemployment than the rest of the workforce.
Additionally, getting a college degree has a good ROI: On average, college graduates earn $1.28 million more over the course of their careers than those who have only a high-school diploma, the Brookings Institution figures.
A 2021 survey of employers from a range of backgrounds and industries found that employers want to hire people whose college education engaged students in “forms of inquiry that train the intellect through a focus on real-world problems that draw the learner into relationship with others.”
Yes, students who major in scientific, technological, engineering or mathematical (STEM) fields tend to earn higher salaries than those in the arts and humanities. It’s also true that starting salaries of students who majored in the arts and humanities tend to be lower than starting salaries in the natural sciences.
But as multiple studies of graduates show, those gaps tend to narrow and even reverse over time. By the time they are in their 50s and 60s, people with liberal-arts degrees out-earned those who held degrees in professional or pre-professional fields such as nursing, business or education, according to a 2014 study from the Association of American College and Universities (AACU).
More recent research reinforces these findings.
A 2021 AACU survey of employers from a range of backgrounds and industries found that employers want to hire people whose college education engaged students in “forms of inquiry that train the intellect through a focus on real-world problems that draw the learner into relationship with others.”
In short, employers want employees with a liberal-arts background.
“We know—and can demonstrate—that a liberal education prepares students for success throughout their working lives, in addition to fulfilling the broader democratic mission of American higher education,” the AACU stated.
Similarly, a 2018 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, found that the three attributes of college graduates that employers considered most important were written communication, problem-solving and the ability to work in a team, skills inculcated in the liberal arts.
The “Project Oxygen” studies by Google, which identified the best attributes of its managers, echoed those results.
David Demig, director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, has done extensive research on the earnings and employment of students with STEM backgrounds vs. those with liberal-arts backgrounds.
Even on narrow vocational grounds, a liberal-arts education has enormous value because it builds a set of foundational capacities that will serve students well in a rapidly changing job market,” Demig wrote, adding that he does not mean to discourage students from pursuing STEM degrees if they choose.
Writing in The New York Times in 2019, Demig argued that higher education should emphasize the development of the whole person, that it should not be viewed as mere job training.
“But even on narrow vocational grounds, a liberal-arts education has enormous value because it builds a set of foundational capacities that will serve students well in a rapidly changing job market,” Demig wrote, adding that he does not mean to discourage students from pursuing STEM degrees if they choose.
Rather, he argues for a view toward the future. “Rapid technological change makes the case for breadth even stronger. A four-year college degree should prepare students for the next 40 years of working life, and for a future that none of us can imagine.”
Rapidly, fundamentally and, it seems, ever more unpredictably, our world is changing. To adapt to the challenges ahead, we will need the full range of well-educated citizens—scientists, engineers, economists, sociologists, political scientists, businesspeople, historians and poets—from all backgrounds and walks of life.
The job market (and the world) needs all of them, working together, in collaboration. As the data show, no surprise, today’s liberal-arts education opens doors to a brighter and better tomorrow. You might believe otherwise. My advice is simple: Think again.
James W.C. White is acting dean of the CU Boulder College of Arts and Sciences.