“So what are you going to do with that philosophy degree?” parents often ask their kids in a panic.
The sticker price of college is astronomical — often more than $200,000 for four years — sending some students deep into debt and causing a growing concern over the usefulness of a liberal arts degree. At a speech last week in Wisconsin, President Obama echoed this anxiety, doubting whether an art history degree is really more lucrative than a technical education. Even Broadway has weighed in. A song from the hit musical Avenue Q asks: “What do you do with a BA in English?”
The University of Phoenix seeks to capitalize on this worry with its recent ad, “Rocket,” which champions a personalized and practical education. The 30-second video argues that “every education, not just ours, should be built around the career that you want.”
The argument tracks a young woman’s trajectory: from organizing a model universe as a toddler, to doing gymnastics as a teen, to staring at a telescope as a college student so she can rocket into space as an adult. That strong, final image ends with the tagline: “Let’s get to work.”
While this ad may be targeted to those with clear career goals, the idea that a broad liberal arts education is fundamentally impractical and/or won’t propel students into useful jobs is shortsighted. More to the point, it does students and society a disservice. Making such all-or-nothing statements, without delving into the details of each individual case, is a mistake.
First, the ad makes the bold assumption that it is universally more beneficial to study in college exactly what one wants to do. In essence, the ad places a technical education above all others. If you are going to become an astronaut, why waste time in that Shakespeare seminar? If you want to be a doctor, why examine the importance of psychology?
The belief the spot espouses —what you study must result directly in a “realistic” job — suggests there is no point to studying art or theater or English, since these subjects don’t obviously correlate to an attainable career. It’s no coincidence that the girl’s dream job is related to science, a subject area mistakenly considered to be inherently more practical and intense.
Yet this argument fails to critically examine the long-term value of a liberal-arts education. Certainly, college should be a stepping-stone to future employment, but its goal should not be confined to only producing students for specific careers. It operates at a much deeper level.
Kaori Kitao, a retired art history professor at Swarthmore College, captures the essence of a liberal-arts education in her essay “The Usefulness of Uselessness” by comparing it to a fable. Fables use the misadventures of its characters to illustrate important life lessons. In the same way, “college courses are of value less for their nominal subject — physics, Latin, economics or art history — but more for the process of learning we experience.”
Thus, a broad liberal arts education makes students better learners and more critical thinkers. In short, they prep for the demands of a wide variety of careers — and an intellectually fulfilling and thoughtful life.
Isn’t the pursuit of excellence and intellectual rigor, in whatever field, a social imperative? Isn’t that what we should expect from leaders in business, law or medicine, traditionally lucrative paths? First-year medical students at Yale are required to take art history to learn the art of observation; business students who study ethics may consider the consequences of unregulated greed.
But let’s return to a parent’s initial worry: Will a liberal-arts degree translate into a real job? If we turn to the employment figures for the top liberal arts schools in the U.S., the overwhelming response is yes. These students are not just finding jobs, but also relatively high-paying ones.
One example: On PayScale’s 2013-2014 College Salary Report, the graduates of the top 10 liberal arts institutions have a typical starting salary of $58,330. Ten years out, that number more than doubles to around $117,700.
True, their success is due, in part, to the fact they are exceptionally bright. Yet these numbers demonstrate that the liberal arts have the ability to lead students to a financially successful life. They often make sense, especially if the school you are attending provides a significant amount of financial aid. According to the Princeton Review’s 2014 list of best value colleges, the average need-based grant given out by my alma mater, Swarthmore College, a preeminent liberal arts school, was $37,379 per year.
I’m not claiming that a liberal arts education is the right choice for everyone. However, for those who pursue it, a broad liberal arts foundation can be rocket fuel for the career of their dreams.