Liberal arts majors make less than other college graduates in the job market—but with a few extra skills, they won’t have to.
By becoming eligible for up to 1.4 million “non-specialized jobs,” liberal arts graduates could wipe out the salary disparity with more specialized degrees, according to new research from Burning Glass Technologies and AEI. But to get those jobs, the broad knowledge students get from a liberal arts education has to be supplemented with specific practical skills.
The debate over the value of the liberal arts degree has been going on for a long time. And the concern about limited job prospects for liberal arts graduates is being reflected in completion rates: bachelor’s degrees granted in fields like English and history have dropped by a quarter between 2007-16, even as overall degrees granted grew 31%.
Yet the critical thinking, communications, and other “soft skills” traditionally built by a liberal arts education are also valued by employers. What employers also need are the specific skills that enable a college graduate to be ready to work right away. Those are skills liberal arts graduates can pick up relatively easily, and that pay off in the job market.
With the help of their colleges, liberal arts students should know that there are large payoffs for adding high-demand skills that can fit with their muse. Not everyone need become an engineering or math graduate to find a good career with strong wages. The right skills (e.g. digital design) added to the right major (e.g. fine art) can lead to a good job with a good future.
The wage gap between liberal arts and STEM majors is well documented. According to Census data, the average 25-year-old with a bachelor’s in liberal arts and humanities major makes $24,687 per year, compared to $40,116 for engineering majors. With the right mix of skills liberal arts students can essentially erase the wage gap with other majors.[table “45” not found /]
The research identified 10 career clusters open to liberal arts majors, and the particular skills graduates need to move into them.[table “43” not found /]
In many ways, the trends in the labor market favor liberal arts graduates. As more routine, repetitive tasks are automated, the value of humanities skills like communication and creativity rises in the job market. More jobs are also “hybrids,” combining skill sets from different domains. Market Research Analysts, for example, need to combine data science and marketing skills—yet college statistics programs rarely teach marketing, and vice versa.
Moreover, the growth of digital skills, such as coding, drives much of this expansion of hybrid jobs. These are skills that students can pick up either by adding courses in college, or through other routes after college.
To make this happen, however, students need clear pathways showing how these additional skills can be acquired and put to use in the job market, the report said.
A liberal arts education is not dead, nor is it necessarily a dead end. Rather a good liberal arts education must provide students with a strong set of foundational analytic and communications skills. But students need to consider how to add identifiable practical or technical skills to that foundation in order to make family-sustaining wages and advance to high-paying job opportunities, while colleges need to ensure they do all they can to get them there.
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