The Understated Value of a Liberal Arts Degree

September 9, 2022
College Admissions

The notion of a liberal arts education was first developed in ancient Greece, where lessons in communication and thinking were combined for the purpose of helping students become good citizens. Since then, liberal arts education has evolved to incorporate the study of a multitude of subjects, including history, economics, political science, English, and sociology. An education in liberal arts also focuses on the development and enhancement of transferable skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving. This type of wide-ranging and multifaceted education came to be highly valued and so was a mainstay of American higher education for decades. This perceived value, however, has steadily eroded over the last decade.

A new generation of students, having grown up entirely in the age of technology, has sought out degrees with what they consider more direct pathways to more lucrative careers. A paradigm shift of sorts has been underway. Degrees earned in engineering, computer science, and other STEM subjects have become increasingly common, while liberal arts degrees have seen a gradual decline in popularity. In fact, according to PBS, only 5% of all college graduates earned liberal arts degrees in 2018.

Despite these recent trends, a liberal arts education remains an exceptional way for students to not only learn in a multidimensional and holistic manner but also acquire the types of dynamic skills and understanding necessary for a successful career in the constantly evolving world of the 21st century.

Evolving Trends and Career Prospects

Gen Z has gradually altered the landscape of higher education over the last decade. Gen Z students live in a world where the cost of a university degree continues to rise, as do alternative ways to learn valuable skills, such as through certificate programs offered by Coursera and edX. Given these dynamics, it should come as no surprise that the number of students attending four-year universities has been steadily declining.

Despite this trend, the last decade has brought with it a considerable increase in the overall number of students pursuing and earning STEM -related degrees. According to the National Science Foundation, from 2000 to 2019, the number of science and engineering bachelor's degrees awarded in the U.S. increased from 398,602 to 724,947. Conversely, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that, in 2019, a total of 161,200 liberal arts degrees were awarded, a 7% decrease from 2009, when the number was 172,800. So, while these figures clearly demonstrate a generational shift away from liberal arts in favor of an education in STEM, what remains murky is the future work outcomes and career earnings between the two.

It’s widely believed that STEM graduates have more lucrative opportunities upon graduating and as they progress through their careers. This, however, is not entirely accurate. In fact, a recent study conducted by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce examined the return on investment (ROI) at 4,500 U.S. colleges and universities and found that 40 years after graduation, the median ROI for liberal arts colleges is “nearly $200,000 higher than the median for all colleges.” Additionally, the same study found that career earnings for liberal arts college graduates were slightly higher than those earning degrees at engineering, business, and technology schools.

These findings are further supported by Payscale, which recently conducted an annual survey of 2.3 million college graduates from 2,700 colleges and found that students obtaining STEM degrees enter the workforce earning higher initial wages than those of other majors. This income advantage, however, does not last long, as liberal arts graduates increase their earnings gradually and consistently over the course of their careers.

The business world is one place where we can see these higher earnings as businesses want workers who have, as Rachel Reiser, assistant dean at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, says, “the ability to think, the ability to write, the ability to understand the cultural or historical context of whatever business decision they’re making.” According to Charles Iacovou, dean of the school of business at Wake Forest University, businesses are increasingly revealing that they need employees with a more reflective education. “We have become so myopic in solving business problems that we don’t think about those problems from the perspective of other disciplines,” he says.

The earnings growth potential of liberal arts graduates can be observed elsewhere, as well. Take, for example, graduates from Princeton University with degrees in humanities, such as English and philosophy, who according to Payscale, report an average annual income of $61,500 within five years of graduation. After ten years or more, this number skyrockets to an average annual income of $134,100. Similarly, Ivy League university graduates who earn degrees in social sciences, such as history and economics, receive an average salary of $68,100 during the early years of their careers. A decade after graduation, this number balloons to $176,600. From the figures stated above, it is clear to see that the value of a liberal arts degree extends beyond the classroom and well into the higher echelons of career earnings.

Prominent Liberal Arts Colleges

The U.S. has an abundance of liberal arts colleges with world-renowned reputations for producing exceptional graduates who go on to be highly successful in virtually every career field. Many of these colleges offer unique academic paths that allow students to explore various interests in ways that promote independent thought and a high-level of engagement.

These schools are small in size, with an average student body of only 2,500 and because most liberal arts schools do not offer graduate level degrees — which due to the supervision of research, typically require a considerable amount of many professors’ time and energy — more time is available for working closely with undergraduate students throughout the course of their studies. Below are several of the most highly-ranked US News Best Liberal Arts Colleges along with descriptions of some of their most distinct features.

Bowdoin College: Students spend their first two years completing a required writing seminar and at least one course in each of the following subjects: mathematical, statistical or computational reasoning; inquiry in the natural sciences; difference, power, and inequity; international perspectives; and visual and performing arts. Students only begin to narrow their focus by declaring a major in the spring of their sophomore year.

Swarthmore College: Students are provided with the opportunity to work closely with their professors, and roughly two-thirds of them partake in research or independent creative projects under the guidance of a faculty member. As a member of the Tri-College Consortium, they also have the option to enroll in classes at the nearby campuses of Haverford and Bryn Mawr, as well as at the University of Pennsylvania.

Hamilton College: Due to its open curriculum, students attending Hamilton are not required to complete an established list of prerequisite courses other than three writing courses. Otherwise, students are given the flexibility to study whatever subjects most interest them. Additionally, because of its high faculty-to-student-ratio, students at Hamilton work closely with advisors to develop individualized education goals.

Bates College: Bates was the first coeducational college in New England. It offers numerous liberal arts classes, as well as STEM programs in engineering and neuroscience. One of the most unique requirements at Bates is a senior thesis paper on a topic chosen by each student, which entails one or two semesters of research and writing.

Amherst College: Except for a first-year seminar on one of a variety of subjects meant to serve as an inquiry-based introduction to critical thinking, there are no required courses at Amherst. Instead, students may choose from more than 850 courses in subjects ranging from natural and social sciences to the arts and humanities. Students can also take courses at the University of Massachusetts and Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges due to Amherst’s membership in the Five Colleges consortium.

In Summary

Over the last decade, a new generation of students has increasingly shifted the focus of higher education from that of a wide array of subject areas, to a more concentrated pursuit within a field. A growing number of students want a college experience that definitively prepares them for the work force and many STEM disciplines provide an ideal type of direct pathway to high-quality future job prospects. This is understandable, given both the rising costs of higher education and the higher wages STEM graduates earn early in their careers.

Despite these trends, a liberal arts education remains a superb way to not only gain a strong understanding of a multitude of subjects and develop a pronounced aptitude for critical thinking and problem solving, but also to lay the foundation for a high-paying career well into the future. While the number of students pursuing a liberal arts education has diminished in recent years, its value has surely not.

For students whose interests extend beyond a singular field of study, factoring a liberal arts degree into their major considerations is a prudent way of exploring the full spectrum of options available to them. Perhaps you have diverse interests which include political science, English and the arts. Or maybe you find both history and economics to be equally appealing. Developing several academic interests is a normal and natural part of many students' educational progression and should be embraced. So, spend some time researching different liberal arts colleges and degree programs to gain a better understanding of how you can further your studies in a variety of fields. The team at AtomicMind is well-equipped to provide students with expert support and guidance in pursuing a liberal arts degree. Contact us to schedule a complimentary consultation about how we can help you with this process.