How to Determine If a Liberal Arts Education Is the Right Choice for You

August 28, 2023
College Admissions

“The liberal arts are the arts of communication and thinking. They are the arts indispensable to further learning, for they are the arts of reading, writing, speaking, listening, figuring.” –Oliver DeMille, American author and educator

“The liberal arts inform and enlighten the independent citizen of a democracy in the use of his own resources. ... They enlarge his capacity for self-knowledge and expand his opportunities for self-improvement. ... They are the wellsprings of a free society.” –Alfred Whitney Griswold, American historian and educator

Liberal arts programs are interdisciplinary college-level programs in which students study a wide array of subjects, including the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. These multidisciplinary programs, which are often maligned—unfairly, in our opinion—for their supposed failure to prepare students for any type of gainful employment, aim to provide students with a broad, comprehensive education that cultivates critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills. Indeed, the eminent mathematician and physicist Albert Einstein, one of the greatest intellectuals in the history of humankind, believed fervently in the value of a liberal arts education, stating, “The value of education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” In this blog post, we discuss what liberal arts programs are, why they are important, and, most importantly, how to determine whether or not they are right for you.

What are liberal arts programs?

Liberal arts programs provide a broad education in a variety of subjects, with the aim of affording students a comprehensive education that prepares them for a range of careers and life situations. Liberal arts degrees typically include courses in a wide-ranging assortment of subjects such as history, literature, philosophy, mathematics, the social sciences, and the natural sciences.

Many of the most eminent institutions of higher learning in the United States, including a number of Ivy League schools, place great emphasis on and express great pride in their liberal arts curricula. For instance, Brown University’s Open Curriculum is, according to the university’s website, “rooted in the liberal arts tradition of educational discovery” and encourages students to explore “multiple fields and disciplines.” Princeton University’s undergraduate admissions website stresses the benefits of a liberal arts education, stating: “By exploring issues, ideas and methods across the humanities and the arts, and the natural and social sciences, you will learn to read critically, write cogently and think broadly. These skills will elevate your conversations in the classroom and strengthen your social and cultural analysis; they will cultivate the tools necessary to allow you to navigate the world’s most complex issues.” Similarly, Yale University’s undergraduate admissions website states: “Yale is committed to the idea of a liberal arts education through which students think and learn across disciplines, liberating or freeing the mind to its fullest potential. The essence of such an education is not what you study, but the result: gaining the ability to think critically and independently and to write, reason, and communicate clearly – the foundation for all professions.”

Why are liberal arts degrees important?

Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard University and former dean of Harvard Law School, once stated that “a liberal arts education works in subtle ways to create a web of knowledge that will illumine problems and enlighten judgment on innumerable occasions in later life.” As this statement contends, liberal arts degrees are important because they provide students with a well-rounded education that helps prepare them for a variety of careers and life situations.

The skills developed in these programs, such as critical thinking and effective communication, are highly valued by employers, who recognize the value of a liberal arts education and often seek graduates of these programs for their ability to think critically, communicate effectively, and solve complex problems. Indeed, according to an article titled “Yes, Employers Do Value Liberal Arts Degrees,” which was published in Harvard Business Review, “employers overwhelmingly endorse broad learning and cross-cutting skills as the best preparation for long-term career success. The college learning outcomes they rate as most important are oral communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, working effectively in teams, written communication, and the real-world application of skills and knowledge”—skills that are effectively cultivated through a liberal arts education.

In addition to the practical benefits they afford, liberal arts degrees are important because they provide students with a broad-based education that prepares them for a wide range life situations. These programs help students develop a strong sense of self and a global perspective, which are critically important for personal and professional growth. A liberal arts education also provides students with a foundation for lifelong learning, as it encourages students to explore a variety of subjects and develop a deep, abiding love of knowledge and scholarship.

How to determine whether or not a liberal arts education is right for you

When considering whether or not a liberal arts program is right for you, it is important to take into account your interests, career goals, and desired learning outcomes. If you are interested in a specific field, such as engineering or medicine, you may want to consider a more specialized undergraduate academic program. However, if you are seeking a broad education that provides a solid foundation for a wide range of careers, a liberal arts degree may well be a good choice for you.

In order to make the most of a liberal arts education, it is important to seek opportunities—such as internships, research projects, and volunteer work—through which you can apply the skills and knowledge that you have gained in real-world situations. In seeking such opportunities, you should consider your post-graduation goals and plan accordingly, such as by seeking out experiences that align with your desired career path. For instance, if you are interested in pursuing a career in medicine, volunteering at a hospital or a health clinic would give you valuable experience in that field.

It is also important to consider the cost of your education and the potential return on investment. Liberal arts programs can be quite expensive, so it is important to research the potential salary and job opportunities in your desired field before making a decision about whether or not to pursue a liberal arts degree. Additionally, you should consider the reputation of the colleges and universities that you are considering, as well as the quality of the faculty and resources at those institutions.

Liberal arts programs provide students with a well-rounded education that prepares them for a range of careers and personal growth and provides them will the skills necessary to tackle the most pressing and complex issues that humanity faces. As the education writer Valerie Strauss notes in an article in The Washington Post, "A pragmatic liberal education promises to engage with issues that students will have to deal with beyond their university years; it’s more ambitious than a short-term training program. The jobs of the future and the problems confronting our world today cannot be tackled by technical specialization alone. Environmental degradation, artificial intelligence, public health, increasing inequality, international political tensions—these are complex areas that demand the kind of holistic thinking characteristic of liberal education."

When considering if such an education is right for you, it is important to take into account your interests, career goals, and desired learning outcomes, as well as to actively seek out opportunities to apply your education. By considering these factors, you can make an informed decision about whether a liberal arts degree is the best choice for you.