Is a liberal arts degree worth it? It is a legitimate question that many prospective students and their parents are asking. Before we answer the question about the value of a degree, it's important to define what "liberal arts" actually means. Simply said, "liberating arts" colleges intend to free the student to think beyond the confines of background or economic constraints. We teach from the world's storehouse of knowledge, thinking about what it means to be human, how we express our meaning, how we create ideas, actions, and art that never existed before. We ask students to understand the world deeply and to contribute to the common good. Does that kind of broad-ranging, historically conscious, inquiry-based study really lead to a job? In our knowledge-based economy, the basic skill for everyone to learn is how to keep learning. Many of the good jobs of the future don't even exist yet. In this ever-changing, global economy, a liberal arts degree prepares students for the creative thinking that leads to innovation and problem solving. It may be that employers are proving the case. This week, the American Association of Colleges & Universities released a survey that asked employers what skills employees need to be successful in their careers. It found:
- 93 percent of respondents reported "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate's] undergraduate major."
- More than 9 in 10 stressed the importance of demonstrating ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and the capacity for continued new learning.
- Employers want more colleges to emphasize five key areas: critical thinking, complex problem solving, written and oral communication skills, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.
- Employers favor graduates who know how to conduct research using evidence-based analysis and to apply that learning in real-world settings.
- The majority of employers agree that having both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge is most important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success.
If you ask most liberal arts leaders what we teach, we will say some of the following: critical thinking, analyzing from multiple perspectives, creative problem solving, understanding the social and historical context of an idea, working with others different from yourself, expressing yourself clearly, using technology, acquiring ethical discernment, and asking better questions.
In his 2011 book, New York Times columnist Adam Bryant listed what he learned from interviewing CEOs. The qualities they look for are:
- passionate curiosity
- battle-hardened confidence
- team smarts
- a simple mind-set -- meaning the ability to focus and present concisely
I like to quote a Marlboro alumna who once declared to a group of parents: "Marlboro grads don't just take jobs, we create jobs!" While that may not be entirely reassuring to students who want certainty in an uncertain time, a liberal arts degree empowers graduates to create their own way.
Students should think about their whole lives, not only as employees but as members of the human family and as citizens. They will benefit greatly by committing themselves to the college years of curiosity, inquiry, and discovery. It will "pay off" to master research methods and new knowledge, and learn to think beyond disciplinary boundaries, developing capacities for creativity and written and oral expression.
What do you do with a liberal arts degree? You adapt to economic change, yes. You also live a richer life, full of creativity and commitment. You "do" a job; you also "become" a person engaged with the world: the kind of "educated citizenry" Thomas Jefferson knew would be needed to protect our democracy.