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The Value of a Liberal Arts Degree

liberal arts degree

There are many compelling reasons why a liberal arts degree is a good choice for college students today. In addition to gaining a breadth of knowledge in a variety of fields, students who pursue a liberal arts education build capabilities and aptitudes that are highly valued by employers.

As reported by Harvard Business Review based on numerous surveys commissioned by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, employers “overwhelmingly endorse broad learning and cross-cutting skills as the best preparation for long-term career success.” This data has been backed up by numerous sources in recent years, including the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

“According to studies from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers often rank skills such as critical thinking and communication — hallmarks of liberal arts training — above technical aptitude as essential for career readiness.”

—U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Putting Your Liberal Arts Degree to Work”

If you’re considering enrolling in a degree program but aren’t yet sure about what you want to study or you have already earned some college credits and are looking for a smooth pathway to earning a degree, read on to learn more about why you should consider a liberal arts degree.

Liberal Arts Definition

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the idea of “liberal arts” as a field of study dates back to the Middle Ages, when it was specifically defined to include seven subjects: grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy. Today, the term “liberal arts” is more loosely applied, and it refers to a larger and more diverse range of academic pursuits.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines liberal arts as “college or university studies (such as language, philosophy, literature, abstract science) intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (such as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills.”

Joseph Lipchitz, an emeritus faculty member in UMass Lowell’s College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, sums up the meaning of liberal arts: “Liberal arts teaches one how to think as opposed to what to think.”

Liberal Arts Subjects

In some ways, a liberal arts program can be viewed as a kind of “starter pack” in terms of academic degrees, as it allows you try out and learn more about numerous subject areas. Not all liberal arts programs, however, are identical. Liberal arts degrees offered by different colleges and universities feature their own unique subject areas and curriculum outlines.

Subjects that are often part of a liberal arts degree include such things as sociology, philosophy, English, history, psychology, humanities, science, literature, legal studies, political science and the arts.

Liberal Arts Degree Requirements

The requirements for earning a liberal arts degree differ from one college or university program to the next. One thing all liberal arts programs have in common, however, is the flexibility they allow students. As a liberal arts major, you can customize your studies by choosing which liberal arts subjects you want to focus on.

Some liberal arts degree programs take a very generalized approach by requiring foundation courses, and then allowing you to choose the remaining courses in your program from a broad list of liberal arts courses. Other programs may offer more defined academic and career pathways by giving you the chance to select from established focus areas, concentrations and/or fields of study. (If you enroll in UMass Lowell’s online Bachelor of Liberal Arts program, for example, you can personalize your studies by selecting two of the following concentration areas: art history, criminal justice, economics, English, gender studies, graphic design, history, legal studies, philosophy, political science and psychology.)

Liberal Arts Degree Benefits

Versatility is one of the most obvious advantages a liberal arts degree offers. By developing a strong foundational knowledge of numerous fields, you will learn how to make connections between distinct ideas, grasp the contrasts and similarities of assorted theories, and effectively evaluate different options. You will also develop verbal and written communications skills, and expand your perspective on the world.

“Rather than focusing on just one area, students in a liberal arts degree program receive a more ‘rounded’ background by exploring various areas, which helps them learn to think creatively,” Cathy Hamilton, Manager of Advising Services at UMass Lowell’s Division of Graduate, Online & Professional Studies, explains. “Liberal arts students are able to compare and connect ideas to solve problems.”

Other benefits include:

  • Access to a well-rounded education
  • Development of highly desirable and marketable skills
  • The opportunity to explore different interests
  • Flexibility in terms of career pathways
  • The ability to accelerate degree progress
  • Preparation for advanced academic study in numerous fields (such as education, law, business, journalism, human services and more)

Liberal Arts Careers

As a liberal arts degree graduate, you will possess a comprehensive set of skills and knowledge that will make you an attractive candidate to employers in diverse fields, enabling you to pursue a wide variety of job opportunities.

“Students graduating with a liberal arts degree are critical thinkers with strong communication skills who are well prepared for the workforce,” says Hamilton, who, during her 12 years of experience advising liberal arts students, has seen many of them go on to enjoy successful careers.

Many liberal arts graduates are employed in professional positions in fields such as education, law, business, publishing, human services, international government, politics and psychology. The list of jobs that liberal arts graduates can pursue is extensive.

Possible career pathways include:

  • Archivist
  • Artist
  • Communications Specialist
  • Counselor
  • Digital Marketing Coordinator
  • Editor
  • Financial Analyst
  • Graphic Designer
  • Human Resources Specialist
  • Journalist
  • Media Buyer
  • Paralegal
  • Social Worker
  • Teacher
  • Technical Writer

The abilities and knowledge you will gain as a liberal arts major are also well aligned with the future of the workforce. According to a 2018 report by labor market analytics firm Emsi and the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, the most valuable workers are (and will be, in the future) those who have a combination of technical knowledge and the “uniquely human skills” that a liberal arts education provides.

The 2020 Future of Jobs report released by the World Economic Forum echoes these sentiments with its prediction of what the top five in-demand workforce skills will be in 2025 — all of which you can acquire when earning a liberal arts degree:

Top 5 Workforce Skills for 2025

  1. Analytical thinking and innovation
  2. Active learning and learning strategies
  3. Complex problem-solving
  4. Critical thinking and analysis
  5. Creativity, originality and initiative

Is a Liberal Arts Degree Worth It?

Short answer: Yes. Any time you invest in pursuing your education, expanding your knowledge, cultivating intellectual ability, and — perhaps most importantly — building skills that employers find valuable will be time well spent.

Longer answer: If you know you want to get a degree but you’re feeling unsure about what you want to study, a liberal arts degree could be a great choice for you. Becoming a liberal arts major could also be a great option if you have an innate love of learning and you are curious about a lot of different subjects. In addition, a liberal arts degree can help anyone who already has some college experience earn a degree faster (and save money) by enabling them to transfer in previously earned college credits from a wider range of courses.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to choosing a degree that will improve your chances of future career success, the benefits and value of a liberal arts degree should not be underestimated.

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Association of American Colleges & Universities

Emsi and the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, “Robot Ready: Human+ Skills for the Future of Work”

Harvard Business Review, “Yes, Employers Do Value Liberal Arts Degrees”

Inside Higher Ed, “Employers Want Liberal Arts Grads”

National Association of Colleges and Employers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Putting Your Liberal Arts Degree to Work”

World Economic Forum, Future of Jobs Report 2020