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Liberal Arts and the Work Place

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The half-baked idea that liberal arts degrees have no workplace value is making the rounds again. It's bad enough that this view assumes the world of work is the only world worth being prepared for, as though preparing for citizenship or even life were trivial college pursuits. But it also gets the workplace wrong.

When actual employers are asked to describe the traits they look for in college graduates, they produce a list of what educators call "learning outcomes." And the outcomes are quite similar to the learning outcomes produced by study of the liberal arts. Employers want their employees to write better, speak better, reason better. They want the so-called "soft skills" not readily taught in the workplace itself. In a recent survey, released by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, virtually all employers concluded that "a candidate's demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major." The ability to think innovatively, not just to recite yesterday's knowledge, now ranks near the top of the qualities sought by employers. The same survey finds that 95 percent of employers give a preference in hiring to college graduates with the capacity for contributing innovation to the workplace. As for actual knowledge content, according to a 2010 survey, a majority of employers want their employees to have more knowledge of global issues, more knowledge of cultural diversity in the U.S. and abroad, and more civic knowledge, among other things. Both the skills and the knowledge for which employers clamor are those provided by the liberal arts.

In some cases, particular college degrees may provide hard skills immediately applicable in a graduate's first job. But the rush to sign up for such degrees surely has to be tempered by the reality that a first job will almost inevitably be followed by a second and a third and even a tenth. The hard skills applicable to a job right out of college may not be applicable to one acquired five years later. Proficiency with a slide rule or an adding machine, for example, doesn't really stand out on a resume any more. Moreover, changing economic circumstances may buffet particular technical degrees. The declining prospects for law school graduates, say, or for college graduates with degrees in architecture, is good evidence of why a blunt preference for technical degrees over liberal arts degrees doesn't make economic sense.

Finally, the college completion agenda will not be aided by attempts to funnel students into technical degrees for which they lack interest or ability. The challenges of persisting to graduation are daunting enough without deadening students' motivation or ignoring students' ability when channeling them into supposed "marketable" degrees. Students interested in liberal arts subjects ought to be encouraged to pursue these subjects, since we know that interest is generally a key component of success, both in completing a college degree and in acquiring the skills the graduates of today will need for the jobs of tomorrow.