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Liberal Arts vs. Career Majors: What’s an Education For?

Snaring a job, says Bill Gates, but BU profs say he’s wrong


As a Harvard undergraduate, “I did nothing but poetry for four years,” recalls Charles Glenn. Afterward, the English major’s career zigzagged: aborted seminary study; the civil rights crusade, with those years reading Yeats paying off when he was jailed for civil disobedience and passed the hours reciting poems; then a doctorate and 21 years of directing programs for the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Now a School of Education professor, Glenn (GRS’87) replays his bio to make a point—his liberal arts education didn’t derail a fulfilling professional life. Yet some educators fear that the liberal arts are in jeopardy, as one headline puts it. If they thought that before, a February talk by the world’s most successful dropout surely spiked their blood pressure. In a speech to the nation’s governors, Microsoft founder Bill Gates suggested that states waste taxpayers’ money by subsidizing public university departments that don’t produce the jobs of the future.

“The amount of subsidization is not that well correlated to the areas that actually create jobs in the state, that create income for the state,” Gates declared. “Now in the past, it felt fine to just say, OK, we’re overall going to be generous with this sector. But in this era, to break down and really say, what are the categories that help fill jobs and drive that state economy in the future—you’ll find that it’s not across the board in terms of everything that the state subsidizes in higher education.”

Is Gates right?

Last year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reported that for new graduates, “academic major is the biggest factor in determining who gets a job offer before graduation.” Accounting, business, computer science, engineering, and social sciences majors led the field in both the number of jobs offered and pay levels, the survey found.

But research by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that income-wise, liberal arts majors catch up with their career-major peers a decade after graduation, as skills gained from a liberal arts education—clear communication, for example—become more valuable in many careers over time. At any rate, students earning liberal arts degrees are more likely planning the graduate study necessary for many good jobs or else will get critical skills through internships or volunteer work such as the Peace Corps, says Virginia Sapiro, dean of Arts & Sciences.

Liberal arts and professionalism are not necessarily an either/or proposition at BU, where professionally oriented schools inject their undergraduates with “a healthy dose of liberal arts requirements,” says Kenneth Freeman, Allen Questrom Professor and Dean of the School of Management. SMG, he says, is “striving to develop well-rounded, well-versed, responsible leaders, and an appreciation for the liberal arts is central to our goal.”

“In the end, management is in itself a liberal art,” Freeman says. “We are cognizant of the need to ensure that SMG students not become so focused on a narrow management education that they neglect to take advantage of their liberal arts electives.”

Casey Larkin (CAS’11) is still trying to parlay his environmental analysis and policy major into a career—“I’m not sure what I want to do when I grow up, and so my liberal arts degree gives me a good foundation and freedom to pursue different interests,” he says. Until November, he’s an intern at a California winery, doing anything from sorting grapes to making wine to cleaning vats.

Larkin ignored career concerns in choosing his major, focusing instead on studying something important (saving the environment clearly qualifies, he says), and on a field whose course work fostered “critical thinking skills.” He has no regrets. “The applicable skills of a career-oriented major are more valuable at an entry-level position, but the skills of a liberal arts major are more valuable later on. Overall, I’m optimistic about my future, and I think the Class of 2011 generally is as well.” But the dreary economy has been a powerful equalizer, in a negative sense, he says: “The majority of my friends, regardless of major, don’t have jobs lined up.”

Cultural anthropology major Ellen Scott (CAS’11) recently took a job as an account manager with a Chicago direct marketing agency, where she had interned. “The job offers are pretty even across the majors” among her friends, she says. “As far as I can tell, the success of the job search depends on your flexibility and experience more than major. If you have experience in the workplace or in the field, many companies will not require your major to be very specific.”

She’d pick the same major again in an instant, she says, because it taught her to observe, analyze, and write—valuable skills in any field—and because it “allowed me to be passionate about many facets of the human experience.” She hopes to apply her degree to providing companies with research into marketing their products for specific ethnographic groups.

“I know my first job out of college will not be my last,” says Scott. “I think most people will have to work their way towards fields associated with their degree, slowly and over time.”

That’s a crucial point, according to Sapiro and Kenneth Lutchen, dean of the College of Engineering. Although Lutchen’s field was one of the majors avidly courted by employers in the NACE study, he says that with technology always becoming obsolete, “we have a responsibility to prepare our students for the decades to come, not just for the next couple of years. Nearly 45 percent of individuals with engineering bachelor’s degrees go on to other careers a decade or so after graduating. We cannot design curricula that prepare undergraduates only for current jobs.” He believes China and India are gambling badly by churning out narrowly trained engineers, technically proficient but lacking liberal leavening that will enable their American counterparts to work and communicate in “multidisciplinary, multicultural teams.”

With a major accounting for fewer than half the credits towards a BU liberal arts degree, Sapiro says, “there’s plenty of room to create a strong, deep, and wide platform from which to launch a life of productivity and success. As a dean—and as a parent—I am interested in the long-term prospects for our students.”

Glenn believes the University hits a sweet spot that successfully blends the best of liberal arts and professional training. BU colleges with a professional orientation require heavy CAS course work for their undergraduate degrees. “That said, liberal arts education ought to include, in a way that it usually does not at other schools, thinking about what you want to do with your life that will make you useful. As you read Plato, you ought to be challenged: how is this going to apply to what you’re going to do with your life?” Along those lines, he lauds efforts by Sapiro and Lutchen to encourage their students to consider careers as schoolteachers, putting their college studies to use in teaching others.

The marketplace has given its endorsement to BU’s liberal arts, Glenn notes. In fact, 4,000-plus endorsements, which is the number of matriculants at CAS each fall.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

8 Comments on Liberal Arts vs. Career Majors: What’s an Education For?

  • Renaldo on 09.07.2011 at 9:55 am

    My first job after graduating with a degree in Ancient Greek was working for a large life insurance company in Beverly Hills. I began as a temp, but within a month was offered a permanent position working in the executive offices as an investment account troubleshooter. Why? I got through advanced calculus as an undergrad and loved the abstract, symbolic nature of math. In a way, it wasn’t so different from the highly conceptual nature of studying a dead language (albeit the foundation of the Western world), and learning about the trials and tribulations of Socrates, Plato, and Alexander certainly prepared me for the real world. I would never have had it any other way, and neither would that life insurance company!

  • Mark Krone on 09.07.2011 at 10:17 am

    I don’t agree with Mr. Gates. The more you target education to particular jobs, the less prepared the graduate will be. Why? Because we cannot know exactly what jobs will exist in the future. This is why a liberal education is more effective because it can provide an understanding of your fellow human beings, how to apply critical thinking to decision making, and the ability to think creatively.

  • Rupert Manlove on 09.07.2011 at 11:27 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Glenn – college should be a place of personal growth and exploration, not some factory to churn out degrees to improve our GDP. My acting classes and hot yoga training have been invaluable to my life, especially in these stressful times when trying to find a job in this kind of market.

  • Sean Fowler on 09.07.2011 at 12:21 pm

    One person commenting above notes that, as the structural demands of the economy are constantly in flux, the liberal arts degree presents the greatest degree of flexibility on one’s job options upon graduation. I disagree. A liberal arts degree, absent any other degree, prepares one for work as a customer service representative, telemarketer, sales representative, or corporate gopher. Yes, these entry-level positions may present opportunities that will allow the liberal arts major to catch up to his or her non-liberal arts peers years later, in terms of annual salary parity, but that’s after years of not being able to pay off school loans that are constantly building interest at seemingly exponential rates, years of not being able to save for a house, and years of not being able to make any solid investments. It’s a recipe for ruin. What’s more is that someone that wisely chose to pursue a degree in the STEM majors (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math) could just have easily secured those entry level jobs plus the entry level jobs available in his or her specific major. More than likely, though, such person will pursue a STEM career, which will begin to pay a high wage right out of college, allowing them to pay off school loans before the interest builds the total amount due to a multiple of what was originally owed, thereby enabling him or her to save for a house, and make some reasonable investments or build a retirement account for the future. So, by the time the liberal arts major finally catches up to the STEM major’s yearly earnings, the STEM major is comfortably living in a house with a white picket fence saving for retirement, while the liberal arts major, while earning the same, is still struggling to pay off school loans from his or her apartment and with his or her resulting bad credit. Beyond the job-right-after-college scenario is the graduate school situation. If both majors go to a graduate school, both will have the same opportunities for positions in neither graduate’s major, but, because of the specialization during undergrad, the STEM major will have additional opportunities in his or her major available to him or her. Indeed, it would seem that the STEM majors always have an advantage over the liberal arts majors, and that is, for the most part, the fact. There are only two situations in which the success of the liberal arts major is greater than that of the STEM major. The first is in the example of one seeking to become a professor of a particular liberal art, and the second is the area of integration with the community and social skills and development. Because of the broader education, the liberal arts major will generally have a much better understanding of the big picture and will be better able to interact with a wide array of personalities and backgrounds. For this second reason, I do think that liberal arts are important to the maturity and development of our children, but I think they are best left as a minor, not a major. I, myself, am a CAS ’98 graduate with a political science degree, and I use what I learned achieving that major every day, but, if I knew then what I know now, I’d have likely pursued a STEM degree with a political science minor, and I feel a bit let down that BU did not provide some sort of major/concentration counseling in my freshman year that could have steered me onto a more productive course of major.

  • Susan de la Vergne on 09.07.2011 at 12:53 pm

    I majored in English in college, then went on to a long career in technology, most of that time in corporate management. And, no, I didn’t get an MBA. Liberal arts students are EXCEPTIONALLY well prepared for a variety of careers; too bad they don’t know it. Even sadder that this debate exists at all (whether the liberal arts are worth studying in “today’s” world).

    Most entry level jobs take six months to learn, less for someone ready and able to learn. Somehow we’ve crafted a whole segment of education–vocational studies–that has managed to decompose and over-complicate the simplest aspects of business (like marketing and supply chain, for example) so that people now believe it takes an ultra-specialized degree even to be considered for a simple job. I read a job ad not long ago requiring certification in salesforce.com, a software product that anyone can figure out in about a week. Next thing we’ll see a B.S. degree in salesforce.com.

    Liberal arts students who’d like to know more about just how job-ready they are can visit http://www.LiberalArtsAdvantage.com.

  • William Coughlan on 10.04.2011 at 9:09 pm

    After each degree I have enjoyed writing a book or two; all in the field of social change And I have Three masters and 7 books. Three books were published traditionally and three are self published And the latest is a memoir about my childhood in West Africa, and going away to school in England
    and Switzerland. If I had not learned about critical thinking in college I doubt all these situations would have presented themselves to me

  • LG on 12.16.2011 at 6:37 am

    I agree with Gates and the professors. Most employers value job experience over a specific college major however college is not just about personal growth and exploration. For alot of working class folks, college IS about being able to leverage your education into a JOB and paycheck in order to improve or maintain your standard of living.

  • Carlitos Corazon on 12.16.2011 at 7:40 am

    One can “do” both. In today’s universities, with their plethora of electives, it is possible to prepare yourself for a job AND get a liberal arts education (hopefully with some music and sports tossed in). But, the government shouldn’t be subsidizing anyone’s education. A loan? OK… but not paying someone’s freight without accountability. And, if the government DOES pay for any part of your education, then they DO have the right to tell you what to study. Just like living at home where you have to follow your parents’ rules. A job is another example: Take their money, do what they say.

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