A liberal arts degree will teach you skills that employers are looking for when they hire. When you’re researching college majors, colleges vs. universities, and types of degrees, you will see this statement often. But is it true? I was trying to find some data some data to back up that claim when I came across the PBK website Toolkit. In this series of posts, I’m looking up the references used to prove that a liberal arts and sciences degree will improve your chances of getting a job.
This is something that I’ve heard before, without any evidence, so I was impressed they were giving a reference. But, as a science editor I was taught to assess the quality of sources, so I went to the source.
I found that their reference pointed to a book I’ve heard of before, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum. I haven’t read the book, but I was trying to quickly assess this source so I decided to check out the reviews. I often find that reviews on Amazon can give me useful information. I found this in the review by Arthur Digby (his bio says he’s “a professor”):
“It’s important to recognize that Arum and Roksa stack the deck, by defining “learning” in ways that advantage students in the humanities and social sciences….It’s fair to say that neither Arum nor Roksa could pass [Engineering or pre-Med] professional exams, which demonstrates that these students have learned a lot along the way..”
An interesting point. Again, I haven’t read the book, although it’s one on my to-read list, so it may be that they make their case. But I did learn enough to know that the source they quoted didn’t definitely prove that point, at least in the eyes of some people, so it is still an area for thought. Furthermore, it sounds vague to me.
It’s a further continuation of that statement on the PBK website that really gets interesting, and closer to the heart of my concern, and it did have references I could check more closely. Let’s look at the continuation.
“These are skills employers look for when hiring, and can take a person to the top.iii The CEOs of American Express, Disney, Bank of America, Logitech, Procter & Gamble, Delta Air Lines and Pinterest all have arts and sciences educations.” PBK toolkit, emphasis theirs
I’ll start with the first sentence. The reference to which they are referring is the National Association of Colleges and Employers, “Job Outlook 2013,” Bethlehem, PA: 2013.
As best I can tell, the results of this study, and therefore this assertion, come from a survey sent to employers that has only vague, theoretical questions. The questions appear to be something like, ‘On a scale of 1 to 5 rate the importance of the following skills in employees: Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization, Ability to work in a team structure, …‘
Then someone made the leap that a liberal arts and sciences degree definitely teaches those skills. And from that they decide that employers are looking for employees with a liberal arts and sciences degree.
That doesn’t look definitive to me. First you have to believe the assumption that a liberal arts and science degree teaches those skills. Then you have to make the assumption that those skills show up during the interview process and the businesses are indeed hiring based on those skills.
Because as strictly a theoretical exercise, who wouldn’t identify those skills as important?
Moving on to the next sentence about all the CEOs who have liberal arts and sciences degrees, that may well be true. (I didn’t look up all the CEOs in that list.)
But I’ve seen one of these CEOs listed before. In another article about CEOs, 10 CEOs Who Prove Your Liberal Arts Degree Isn’t Worthless. In it, former Walt Disney Company CEO, Michael Eisner, is quoted as saying, “After graduating from Denison [with a degree in English]…[I] couldn’t get a job… My inability to land a job left me feeling lonely, dislocated and slightly frantic.”
Not exactly the outcome you hope for after finishing a college degree.
I’ll continue looking up more of the assertions in my next post.
* This is not to say that the NACE site isn’t useful if you’re trying to get information about degrees and jobs. Currently on the NACE membership page they have a link to a beginning salaries survey that I found interesting.