The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

Log onto MSN any day of the week, and it’s not unusual to see an article listing the top ten money-making majors related to engineering, finance or computer science. What if you truly love English, French, political science, social work – you know, the liberal artsy majors? Should you chuck your natural interests and instead train your brain to think like an engineer? Probably not.

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“The goal of a liberal arts education isn’t maximum earnings; it’s the maximum happiness factor,” says John Boshoven, counselor of continuing education at Community High School in Ann Arbor.

Boshoven says this is especially true for students who pursue careers in education, social work or politics.

“Those of us who are called, we know that this is what we are called to and fulfilled by,” he says.

Even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, liberal arts degrees develop the type of skills – critical thinking, communication and writing– that employers are looking for, says Troy resident Susie Reed, a 2009 University of Michigan graduate with dual degrees in political science and social science.

“Liberal arts students who do internships and research over the summer while in college actually do really well in terms of job placement upon graduation if they don’t go directly into law or grad school,” says Katy Murphy, director of college counseling at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, Calif.

Reed, whose interests were focused on “things that would impact people in their working life,” spent a semester in New York interning with a union and taking night classes in labor studies, which earned her credits that transferred back to U of M. She also spent a summer studying workplace models in Argentina, worked another summer in a law firm, volunteered with a worker center and was involved on campus in student politics.  

“I didn’t go into college knowing exactly what I wanted to do after I graduated,” Reed says. “But all those experiences combined really helped me identify what I really wanted to do, so when I graduated, I was pretty clear about the type of career I wanted.”

Reed didn’t get her “dream job” right away. She worked restaurant jobs and continued to volunteer at the worker center, staying in touch with people who could help get her hired. The networking paid off; a year and a half after she graduated from U-M, she was hired as a union organizer.

“Networking skills are really important,” Murphy says. “Students have to go to college with the mindset that they are preparing for the next stage of life.”

Half the jobs haven’t been invented yet, Murphy says, so even though opportunities to intern or research are important, networking skills may be even more so.

“Understand how to network and present yourself,” Murphy says. “Even meeting with family and friends, you have great ways to learn how to behave like an adult.”

Although students don’t often get the “ultimate job” right away, Boshoven says, it is a “lot easier to get a job from a job. As long as you are open to more adventure in your job and not feel that you have to have that ‘right’ job or the job that is going to bring financial gain right away, a college degree – even a liberal arts degree – is much more likely to launch you to a career.”

Boshoven doesn’t deny that college is expensive.

“But lifetime earnings are tremendously bolstered by college completion and even more so by graduate school completion,” he says.

So, what do employers gain by hiring the liberal arts graduate?

“Many CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are liberal arts majors, and many were performing arts majors,” Boshoven says. “They were speaking on stage or on film and developed the skills to communicate on the fly or in an organized manner. Study of liberal arts develops those critical thinking skills, those communication skills, the problem-solving skills, the ability to work in groups. With kids changing careers five or six times now, they are able to switch gears a lot more easily than someone who is very specialized.”

Even graduate business schools find students with liberal arts degrees attractive.

“Many prominent MBA programs don’t want people straight out of a business program,” Murphy says.

Students who enter graduate programs in business administration with liberal arts degrees are appreciated for their interdisciplinary approach to problem solving.

“Smart people know how to dig in and solve a problem,” Murphy says. “The essence of a liberal arts education is that you can solve a problem and represent yourself well.”


Website – Colleges That Change Lives –

Book – “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change The Way You Think About Colleges” by Loren Pope. Available in Kindle format and paperback.

– Pam Houghton