The Underestimated Value of Liberal Arts Degrees

Cross-posted from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity


The subject matters of arts and humanities, like philosophy and English, are often viewed as being too far removed from daily life to be useful outside of the academic world. Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape,   claims  that a student not in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) will likely “end up working a shoe store.” Hunter Baker, Dean of Instruction at Union University, however,   argues  that abilities to think critically and contextualize new information are necessary to long-term business success; according to Baker, arts and humanities cultivate such skills.


Melissa Korn at  The Wall Street Journal  lends  some credence to Baker’s claims: liberal arts majors with post-graduate degrees make $2,000 more than their professional and pre-professional equivalents at the peak of their careers.   The Huffington Post  provides  a list of successful arts and humanities students, all of whom work outside of academia. In addition, data from the Educational Testing Service  show  that liberal arts students score significantly higher than any other field in both the verbal and analytical writing sections of the GRE, and philosophy students outperform accounting students in the quantitative section.


Despite the academic and business success of liberal arts students, they earn on average far less than engineering students at any equivalent level of education and experience. They also earn less than physical science students at the peak of their respective careers. However, the value of STEM degrees might be overestimated. Robert Charette of  IEEE Spectrum  claims  that the market does not need STEM-specific skills, as there are 11.4 million STEM degree holders working in non-STEM fields and only 277,000 vacancies in STEM-specific jobs. Rather, the critical thinking and problem solving skills taken from those fields provide value and can be acquired just as well–if not better–through a liberal arts education.


Liberal arts degrees such as English, philosophy, or history are not useless or esoteric. Although the knowledge gained through their study might not be directly applicable to any field or job, the frameworks for learning new skills and information obtained from them are useful in any context. Contrary to popular wisdom, degrees in arts and humanities can be used as practical tools for success outside of academia.


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