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Surviving the Struggling Economy with a Liberal Arts Education

By Erin Hemlin

When I was a high school senior, I asked my mom what to study in college. To help me with my decision, she shared with me her major-picking thought selection process, saying, “I majored in my favorite professor.” She ended up majoring in history at the University of New Hampshire, and is now a successful President/CEO of a technical writing and training company.

This tactic made sense in 1982.  In 2012, with student debt exploding, some people argue that that my mom’s advice is outdated.

  • A report by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce titled “All Majors are Not Created Equal” finds that unemployment rates of recent graduates are higher for “non-technical” majors.
  • Humanities and Liberal Arts majors have a 9.4% unemployment rate, and policy majors are unemployed at 8.9%, compared to the lowest, 5.4% for Education and Health majors.
  • Some have even gone as far as to argue that liberal arts degrees are worthless. Maura Pennington, a contributor to Forbes magazine writes, “those who studied in college what they found interesting thus see themselves with inapplicable degrees.”

In a struggling economy that’s inching out of the Great Recession, millions of Americans cannot find work. There’s a big push for students to earn degrees in mathematics and science to fill gaps in high-tech industry jobs.  And that’s fair enough – it’s the direction our economy is heading.  But the fact that graduates in certain fields do better, and that students should certainly know that information when making their decision on what to study, does not mean the end of a liberal arts degree in America.  Indeed, the college-educated populace fairs better across fields of study than those who do not pursue higher education.  Although the unemployment rate for college graduates of all majors is high at 8.9%, the job market is much more gruesome for those with only a high school diploma, who have an astronomical 22.9% unemployment rate, or those who dropped out of high school, who are currently unemployed at a rate of 31.5%.

Indeed, I argue that there is still significant market (as well as other) value in the liberal arts.   Here’s what a liberal arts degree can get you:

  • Communications skills – Liberal arts majors generally write dozens of research papers throughout their academic career; this teaches a future employee how to identify and relay important information, skills that are necessary in almost any job.  According to a survey among employers on their views of college learning, 89% of employers ranked the ability to communicate effectively both in writing and orally as the most important intellectual and practical skill.
  • Critical thinking – Employers value the ability to think critically above all else, more so than skill specialization. Students of the social sciences learn how to identify and address critical questions of governments, societies, and civilizations. Students who hone these skills can translate that kind of high level critical thinking to take on problems from a small community organization all the way to corporate America.
  • Versatility – Due to amount of skills you enhance while getting a liberal arts degree, a student of humanities and liberal arts will be able to adjust and adapt in a multitude of environments. Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce points out that some majors that are tied to specific careers can be hit severely hard if there is a collapse in the industry; architecture majors have an unemployment rate of 13.9% thanks to the collapse in the construction and housing market.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Certainly, a student who majors in anthropology, with a starting salary of $28,000, may never make as much as a future mechanical engineer (who has an average salary of $58,000 for a recent graduate), but that student may find a job that fits better, be able to build a successful career, and still be able to land a paycheck that will pay back those pesky student loans.  We just need to make sure that all students have the opportunity to make that decision for themselves.