What's a liberal-arts degree worth? Higher ed leaders—and high-tech CEOs—continue to stress that a course load that encourages critical thinking and flexibility can prepare graduates for a range of job openings.
DePauw University President Brian Casey recently argued in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that liberal arts graduates have the creativity and critical thinking skills that today's employers need.
When managers and employers are asked to identify what traits they want in employees, "without fail they almost perfectly describe liberal-arts graduates," says Casey. "They want people who are creative, who can deal with complexity, who can think for themselves, [and] work with other folks," he adds.
A different perspective on technology
Many CEOs of top technology companies agree that liberal arts students are necessary for their companies' success, Fast Company reports. These leaders argue that creativity and critical thinking, nurtured in liberal arts studies, are vital to the fast-paced tech world.
Liberal arts can give graduates a new perspective on technology—the scientific method ingrained in STEM degree holders can be limiting, say industry experts.
A background in existential philosophy taught Danielle Sheer, a VP at cloud-backup service Carbonite, to approach problems differently than her colleagues. According to Sheer, her tech-focused colleagues had been trained to find the "one answer."
Seven Yi, CEO of web advertising platform MediaAlpha, echoed Sheer. He says his interdisciplinary degree in East Asian Studies trained him to view every problem from every perspective. During his undergraduate years he combined research in literature, politics, and economics. Now, he synthesizes information from sales, technology, and marketing departments to determine where the company should head next.
Tough to quantify that value
In his Wall Street Journal interview, Casey argues that attempts to calculate the value of a liberal arts degree often overlook their soft skills and lifelong benefits. Many aspects of liberal arts education are unmeasurable, such as raising empathy and awareness of other cultures.
"What I fear is that we will focus on those quantifiable things... that might not represent the mission of the institution," he says.
Casey encourages other liberal arts colleges to combat skepticism by showing prospects their array of career development resources. These can help reassure parents and students that the college is working hard to serve graduates on the labor market.
Georgia Nugent, senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges, calls it a "horrible irony" that as the world changes more frequently, "we're encouraging our young people to be highly specialized in one task." She adds, "the liberal arts are still relevant because they prepare students to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances" (Belkin, Wall Street Journal, 10/19; Segran, Fast Company, 8/28).
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