How to Explode a Myth: Reshaping the Conversation About the Liberal Arts

April 8, 2015

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AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider on how both our economy and our democracy depend on a liberal education.

Higher education leaders now are living and leading in the context of increased public scrutiny, demands for greater public accountability, and a “new normal” of constrained resources. As even a casual reading of the news makes clear, presidents and educational leaders must redouble our efforts to clarify the essential components of a high-quality college degree and provide evidence on that oft-repeated and anxiety-generated question: Is college really worth it?

In this context, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has taken the lead in engaging employers, economists and educators in a searching examination of the kinds of learning that will prepare students best for the jobs of the future, as well as for their roles in a globally engaged and highly diverse democracy. Hart Research Associates has assisted this effort through a series of commissioned employer surveys. AAC&U also has worked with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) to document the career and salary results for different categories of majors.

These studies and reports respond directly to the far-reaching, potentially dangerous confusion in our current national discourse about postsecondary learning. For example, America’s historic strength in higher education has come from its distinctive investment in the combination of both broad and specialized learning. Yet policymakers (and frequently students themselves) assume that specialized study in a major is the only part of higher education that really matters. As a result they see the broad learning component of college as an area ripe for cost savings.

What Employers Want

Employers, to be plain, do not share this policy assumption. Consistently and overwhelmingly, they report that it takes much more than a major for a graduate to succeed in their organizations and in careers. Indeed, industry has coined the term “T-shaped” to depict employers’ conviction that graduates should have both depth in a specific field and also the “big picture” knowledge and crosscutting skills that enable graduates to work across boundaries and apply their learning productively.

Employers overwhelmingly agree that, in terms of professional success, postsecondary graduates’ “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” (Hart Research Associates 2013). Employers strongly endorse the combination of broad learning and a specialized field, and they believe all students need a foundation in the liberal arts and sciences.

Moreover, more than two-thirds of employers surveyed say they want colleges and universities to place more emphasis on the following learning outcomes, whatever majors students choose:

  • Critical thinking and analytic reasoning

  • Complex problem solving

  • Written and oral communication

  • Applied learning in real-world settings

  • Teamwork skills in diverse settings

  • Ethical reasoning

In addition, more than 90 percent of employers agree that “all students should have educational experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own” (Hart Research Associates 2013).

Employers specifically endorse, in other words, all the component elements of a broad liberal education. Their main request is that we do a better job of fostering those liberal learning outcomes across all majors, and for all graduates. (See “Essential Learning Outcomes,” from AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise, or LEAP, initiative).

The other area of massive policy and public confusion applies to the term “liberal arts.” While our research shows that neither graduates nor current students understand exactly which majors fall into the “liberal arts” category, there is widespread concern nonetheless that students who choose a liberal arts major will end up unemployed and unemployable. (See AAC&U’s guide to frequently confused terms.) Campus presidents in certain states are all too familiar with some policy makers’ toxic view of the liberal arts as a waste of public dollars.

As a historian, I find it deeply perturbing to hear elected officials blithely dismissing history, philosophy, religion, languages and literatures, cross-cultural studies, political science, and political theory, as though a nation could forget its history and political foundations, ignore its cultural legacies and neighbors, give up on understanding alternative world views, and still somehow perpetuate itself as a global power.

The Real Facts on Earnings

But even staying with the more narrowly framed question of whether liberal arts majors are employable, AAC&U’s research with NCHEMS shows that the liberal-arts naysayers simply have it wrong: Using data from more than 3 million respondents to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the recently released report How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment, by Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly, shows clearly that liberal arts majors (defined for this study as those in the humanities, social sciences, and the arts) fare well across the career span.

The study, which looked at discrete cohorts in different phases of their careers beyond college, shows that the majority of graduates with humanities and social science undergraduate degrees are employed and are earning salaries that are significantly higher than those being paid to those with only high school degrees.

The report also documents that, while science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors earn more on average than do those with other degrees, in their peak earning years, humanities and social science majors close earning gaps with those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields. In fact, at peak earnings age, those workers whose first baccalaureate degrees were in the humanities or social sciences earn on average about $2,000 more than those with first degrees in professional or pre-professional fields.

How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment also sheds light on two other ways that liberal arts majors add value to our society.

About 40 percent of all those in the labor force holding a baccalaureate degree in humanities or social sciences also hold a graduate degree and thereby contribute in a variety of professions, including law, education, business, public administration, and the clergy. In addition, degree holders in the humanities and social sciences contribute disproportionately to a family of social services and education professions that may pay less well than some other fields, but which are absolutely necessary to the health of our communities and to our educational system. Absent liberal arts graduates, the institutions that support democracy and the social safety net would be left dangerously weakened.

What then should be our message? In sum, both our economy and our democracy depend on American higher education’s distinctive liberal education blend of broad, big-picture learning; specialized learning; and cross-cutting capacities. The liberal arts are indispensable to that big-picture learning. But they also add value in their own right, as postsecondary majors. The students who choose those majors help strengthen the fabric of our communities, professions, and democracy itself.

Our society needs the full array of liberal arts, sciences, and professional majors. We must protect and strengthen the liberal arts. And we must ensure that students in every major, whatever its subject matter, finish their degrees with those liberal learning outcomes that best prepare our graduates for career success and democratic responsibility.


Hart Research Associates. 2013. It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Humphreys, Debra, and Patrick Kelly. 2014. How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Reprinted from the Spring 2015 edition of ACE’s flagship magazine, The Presidency.

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