In this series of posts, I’ve been looking for proof that a liberal arts and sciences degree will improve your chances of getting a job. To start at the beginning, go back to my first post in this series, What is a liberal arts degree?
I started out by reading the information on the website PBK Toolkit, which had sources for their assertions. (I almost said “facts,” but I now heavily doubt whether the assertions are indeed facts.) When I came to an interesting assertion, I would look up the source. But I got tired of being intrigued by the assertion only to look up the source and finding it to not be meaningful. So then I jumped straight to their reference section and started going through their sources one by one. Unfortunately, I still didn’t find any sources I considered convincing.
Then I realized that there are two references at the beginning of the PBK Toolkit which I overlooked when I was just analyzing the sources of intriguing statistics I saw quoted. I’ll go back to those now.
Will a liberal arts degree lead to employment?
China is copying the United States Liberal Arts System
Here are the first two sources of the PBK Toolkit.
Maybe it’s ironic, but more than when educators in the United States say that a liberal arts and sciences education is important, when the Chinese are looking at a liberal arts education, it makes me take notice.
That’s because when I read The Smartest Kids in the World, by Amanda Ripley, one of the lasting impressions I got was that countries with high pressure testing systems in their schools, like Korea and China, are recognizing the downfalls of their educational system. They are changing direction even as we desperately try to catch up with them.
The first reference, The New York Times article makes the interesting observation that while a liberal arts education is being introduced at a college level in China, introduction at the primary level would actually be more important.
The second reference, The Harvard International Review article, discusses the justification for a liberal arts degree (even going into the original definition of “liberal arts” also referring to science) and the formation of a similar college level liberal arts school. But, when they compared their new program to liberal arts degree requirements in the United States, they said that in the U.S. students got to select their electives from a range of classes and often ended up picking the easiest ones. In my experience, that assertion isn’t true.
Liberal arts degrees don’t really allow you to take interesting or useful electives
That was not my experience with a liberal arts degree. (A BS in Chemistry.) We had spaces for a few upper level electives, but the lower level required courses in English were very confining, and our selections in lower level courses for many of the other disciplines were very restricted. Now it may be that students are selecting the easiest lower level electives they can. In fact, I’m sure that is the explanation that many disgruntled professor professors give when their class isn’t well attended; that their class is difficult and students won’t pick difficult classes. However, I would also suggest that when professors make a class interesting, even more difficult subjects seem easier.
I think you can’t really determine that in the US students will only pick easy electives until they are also offered the opportunity to take advanced electives, which are by definition more specialized. The most interesting elective I took during my undergraduate degree was an upper elective, a very specific class in plant physiology. That class wasn’t more definitely wasn’t “easier” than my Introduction to Anthropology class, but it was more interesting and therefore seemed easier to me.
But taking upper level classes as electives isn’t normal practice. The only elective options officially open to my major were to take the lower level general biology classes. I wasn’t interested in taking those; my interest lay not in animal biology, but in plant biology specifically. But I was able to take this upper level elective without taking any other biology classes in college, because I asked permission. I had to get permission from the professor, meet him personally and get a handwritten note (this was the dark ages!), to take this class. Because I was a top student – and to be honest the class was incredibly small – I was able to take the class. But I don’t think the option would be available to most students, even if it occurred to them. And while I had a deep enough background in high school science to attempt getting permission, it didn’t occur to me to do this in other subjects as well.
Especially when I contemplate the serendipity of Steve Jobs auditing a calligraphy course, I think there should be more freedom in class selection, not less. Apparently more freedom in class selection is true at a few small colleges, but it’s not the norm, and I haven’t yet looked into that extensively. But it bothers me that in the quest to make well-rounded individuals, the controllers of liberal arts educations want to define exactly where students are to be well-rounded, and technology doesn’t even enter into it.
Are recent liberal arts graduates actually getting hired?
I could go on checking some more references on further web pages, but at this point I think the real question is “What kind of job offers have been made to which majors in the last five years?” And I think I’m going to have to go to colleges and universities directly to ask this question.
On both the university tours I went on, I think it was interesting that the general recruitment pitch mentioned that the job placement rate and (graduate school acceptance rate) for their (engineering department) was 95-98%. Emphasis and parentheses mine, because you had to be listening carefully to catch the whole meaning of the statement.
I asked the rates for the college as a whole, and both times the recruitment officer didn’t know the answer.
At one school I asked in the career center, and they still didn’t have that data.
I mentioned that in other articles I’ve found on employment rates for different majors, most of them point to the same studies and surveys that I’ve found to have less than useful questions and results. I also found that liberal arts would often morph into a degree in the humanities, indicating the confusion about just what a liberal arts major is.
However, in looking for employment data again, I did find an article that was in favor of a liberal arts degree, Why critics are wrong about liberal arts degrees. Again, it covered the SAME sources that I don’t find meaningful. However, one of these sources, the Association of American Colleges & Universities now has some new studies out under Employer Survey & Economic Trend Research 2015. Curiously, the summary seems to have absolutely nothing to do in the full report. However, the full report, The Employment Status of Humanities Majors, starts out by saying, “humanities graduates have are somewhat likelier to be unemployed than graduates in several other fields who have comparable education attainment and are at similar stages in their lives.”
If you go on and dig into the numbers, the numbers don’t look that bad. But you do get a good breakdown of employment rates by majors. In fact, the numbers are often so close that I would still suggest that your best bet is to get some actual numbers and employers of different majors from the university or college where the degree will be earned.
My sister, a physics professor at a private university, did say that one of the career counselors at her university told her that employers were starting to ask for liberal arts majors specifically. This made me think that perhaps Phi Beta Kappa and the National Association of Colleges and Employers weren’t so much trying to show that liberal arts majors are currently getting hired at a high rate, but instead were trying to prove to employers that liberal arts majors have the skills they are looking for and would make good employees.
However, in that case I find the wording on their website and their message to universities and colleges misleading. But, if employers are indeed now asking career centers for liberal arts majors, they did actually succeed in their objective and are getting their opinion out that liberal arts majors make good employees. And if liberal arts majors do make better employees and better citizens, perhaps the end justifies the means.
But that doesn’t tell me if they are actually getting results. That still doesn’t tell me which majors are actually being hired.
I still want to know:
- What are the hiring rates for liberal arts degrees?
- What are the hiring rates for the different majors?
- What jobs do different majors get hired for?
And I don’t want just general answers, such as “Chemistry majors get hired for research positions.”
I want data. I want company names, specific positions, and majors. With numbers.
To come back to my original question – even if a liberal arts degree does indeed make you a better employee, will it get you hired so you can prove you’re a better employee? In spite of the assertions made by Phi Beta Kappa, the liberal arts honors society, their sources don’t prove that.
I did find an article that may be of help if you’ve got that liberal arts degree and looking for where you might be able to get hired. There may be a job for you in the tech world if you know how to search and find the right company.
While it’s hard to know from the articles what kind of numbers these jobs translate into, it might give a liberal arts major a creative way to search for a job.
I realize that personal experience colors a lot of my opinions, and my experience doesn’t apply to everyone. What about you? Do you have a liberal arts degree and did that get you your first job? Do you hire people with liberal arts degrees? If you’ve got any answers, please comment below. Meanwhile, I’ll keep researching!