Is an Education in the Liberal Arts Important?

The results of two separate surveys were announced the week of September 16 that provide very interesting insights into the American job market. One addressed the opinions of those who hire candidates for jobs and the other reported on the salaries of those who get hired.

Inside Higher Ed reported on a survey conducted for Northeastern University among hiring decision-makers nationwide. Six in ten of these business leaders responded that "softer" broadly applicable skills such as oral and written communications and problem-solving skills are most important for college graduates to possess. The survey also found that 84 percent of the business leaders believe the ability to think creatively is just as important as the ability to think critically.

When asked about candidates in the job market today, an overwhelming 73 percent said that being well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry expertise because job-specific skills can be learned at work.

The other survey announced this week, the annual PayScale College Salary Report, was based on data gathered from more than 1.4 million college graduates and it identified the mid-career median salaries for individuals who had earned various types of degrees. PayScale reports mid-career pay by the school from which the degree was earned and it defines mid-career individuals as persons working full-time with at least 10 years of experience in their career field or who hold a bachelor's degree and no higher degrees.

Not surprisingly, degrees in STEM fields were listed among the top ten majors by salary potential. As reported in the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch (slide #6), "nontechnical or nonmedical disciplines like liberal arts and humanities can get a bad rap during tough economic times." Yet, the earnings potential for persons with a liberal arts degree was shown in the survey to be no small potatoes.

Among the top five schools listed by PayScale for liberal arts degrees, the mid-career pay ranges from $64,400 to $79,000. (In the interest of full disclosure, Excelsior College was at the top of this list.) According to current Census data, median income for all households in the U.S. is $51,017. PayScale reported individual median income so, in comparison, the earnings potential for persons with a liberal arts degree is a lot better than most believe.

The common denominator in both survey results is the benefit of an education in the liberal arts. The kinds of "softer" skills Northeastern found employers desire in job candidates are well-cultivated in a liberal arts curriculum. And while "harder" skills such as those applicable to many STEM careers are surely critical, even those working in the most highly technical fields need the "well-rounded" advantages to career success that the liberal arts can provide.