Liberal arts grads fare better in job market than most think

woman speaking to law firm representatives at career fair

It’s a myth that if you major in the liberal arts in college, you are destined for a lifetime of low-wage jobs and limited mobility, according to a recent report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Liberal arts majors may start off slower than others in their careers, but they close much of the salary and unemployment gap over time, says the report, titled “How Liberal Arts and Science Majors Fare in Employment.” It analyzed 2010 and 2011 data on college attainment and annual earnings from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Students who major in humanities and social science won’t earn as much over their lifetimes as those who major in engineering, science and math. But by their mid-50s, liberal arts majors with a bachelor’s or advanced degree are on average making more money than those who studied in professional and pre-professional fields, and are employed at similar rates, according to the report.

Liberal arts majors don’t fare quite as well when they have just an undergraduate degree, but many are finding that internships, an academic minor or a certificate will give them a leg up that helps them access the entry rungs of the career ladder. Others get a boost by coupling their education with field-specific skills, such as marketing, sales, social media, graphic design and data analysis and management.

Many Arizona State University students in liberal arts have the advantage of taking a cross-disciplinary approach to their studies, rather than focusing on a narrow major, according to Patrick Kenney, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS).

Internships and interdisciplinary study at ASU

Almost all majors in CLAS also offer internships and hands-on community work, and a number of programs are now offering professional, career-oriented master’s degrees.

“A liberal arts education is focused broadly on introducing students to a wide range of relevant topics, including politics, history, sociology and communication,” says Kenney. “Flexibility, creativity, critical thinking and strong communication skills are at the core of liberal arts education, and critical to success in today’s world.

“The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has taken seriously the need to forge interdisciplinary links and create programs that extend across fields. We have freed up a number of credit hours so students have options to do this. Students must learn how to work collaboratively, to assess and analyze problems and reach solutions.”

The report emphasizes that there’s one area in which humanities and social science majors excel: meeting employers’ desires and expectations. Employers want to hire people who have a broad knowledge base and who can work together to solve problems, communicate and think critically, and adapt to a changing workplace.

Graduate schools also find a liberal arts background appealing because it demonstrates an ability to learn across a diverse field of studies.

Liberal arts – good preparation for career

Ryan Gliha, a 1998 ASU graduate with a bachelor’s in religious studies who is now a foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department, says his degree prepared him well for the challenges of his career.

“My religious studies background taught me how to better understand others’ worldviews in a way that makes me a more effective representative of the American people abroad,” he says. “My liberal arts degree (also) taught me how to communicate effectively, with nuance and precision.”

Gelie Akhenbilt, who earned a bachelor’s in communication in 2003, likes the fact that her degree gave her options. She started out in marketing, moving into employee internal communication before launching her own tech startup. Now she makes presentations on television and on stage for her company, utilizing the skills she learned in college.

Bachelor’s degrees in history prepared Sandra Bensley, a 2003 graduate, and Peg Perl, who graduated in 1997, for law school and successful careers as attorneys. Both say that they learned critical thinking, written analysis and effective communication of ideas, all of which are key to success in the legal profession.

“My transition into law school was likely more seamless because I had already learned how to reason and apply different viewpoints,” says Bensley. “As a practicing attorney, liberal arts courses gave me a background in critical thinking that I use every day.”

Real-world experience, career skills help

Ninety percent of ASU undergraduates participate in individual study projects, internships or research, often giving them real-world experience that can help them with career decisions or make them more employable.

An internship program in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics places undergraduates in family and human development in more than 100 local agencies, including Head Start centers, domestic violence shelters and a children’s hospital. Students may shadow child life specialists, visit patients and provide parent education, meeting regularly with ASU faculty who supervise them.

ASU just held its first-ever Humanities Career Fair, presented by the Department of English; the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies (SHPRS); and the School of International Letters and Cultures. More than 30 employers attended, along with at least 130 ASU students.

“We wanted to create an environment for our graduates to shine in front of potential employers,” says Beatriz Kravetz, manager of marketing and communications for SHPRS. “In a STEM-driven society, it may be a challenge for a philosophy major to outshine a math major before an employer such as Northstar/Honeywell, despite the fact that philosophy majors many times end up in high level positions at companies like this. We can even out the playing field.”

Matthew Garcia, the director of SHPRS, is heading up an initiative to incorporate more career skills into courses, as well. The idea is to require more public speaking, presentations in video and social media formats, and other projects that translate students’ writing skills into new modes of communication.

ASU adds professional master’s programs

Enhancing career opportunities for ASU liberal arts graduates are a number of professional master’s degree programs, including a newly-launched degree in geographic information systems. The one-year program includes advanced study in management and the use of GIS technology in public and corporate environments.

Other professional master’s programs include global health, urban and environmental planning, marriage and family therapy, and communication disorders. These are designed as preparation for the workforce, rather than a bridge to a doctoral program or an academic career.