The Liberal Arts Degree: An Option Just for Rich Students?

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In articles about increasing student loan debt, graduates with liberal arts degrees are criticized for not picking a more practical major. For many poor and middle-class students, liberal arts degrees seem like a frivolous path because they don’t connect directly to specific careers. With rising college costs and higher expectations from entry-level employers, a liberal arts degree seems to be a safe choice only to students with money and connections. A few reasons the poor and middle classes are reluctant to choose liberal arts degrees:

No More Entry-Level Jobs

True entry-level jobs have disappeared. Employers expect experience, even from recent graduates. Therefore, college students are pressured to choose a specific career path and practical major early on. In addition, they are expected to gain relevant experience via internships in their field of choice because employers are unwilling to invest in training new employees. Previously, a liberal arts graduate might be eligible for many entry-level jobs, because employers allowed time for on-the-job training and the employee could learn the industry through work experience. Now, entry-level applicants are expected to have substantial industry-related knowledge and skills before starting a job.

The Rise of Unpaid Internships

Unpaid internships are common in industries that typically attract liberal arts students. These internships can last for a year or more, shutting out most poor and middle-class students. Only those who can afford to work without pay have access to these opportunities. And since these internships don’t guarantee a job, the more internships one can get, the greater chance of landing a paid job. Very few college students and recent graduates can work indefinitely without pay.

Connections Lead to the Elusive Jobs

Many jobs and internships aren’t advertised, and connections are the only way to land some of the best positions. Anyone can network for a job, but wealthy students have built-in connections via family and therefore don’t have to work as hard to find unadvertised jobs. And college major doesn’t matter as much when you know a job is waiting for you no matter what you choose to study.

Technical Skills Praised, but Critical Thinking Skills Overlooked

Employers want workers that can take initiative and solve problems, but don’t value the critical thinking skills required to accomplish important tasks. Liberal arts courses can teach these valuable skills, but a large percentage of college students don’t take full advantage of course offerings in the liberal arts and sciences. Technical skills have taken precedence over critical thinking and soft skills, even though technical skills alone are not sufficient for workplace success. Non-wealthy students that need a paying job upon graduation must focus on what employers want, meaning more career-specific courses and fewer liberal arts classes. This is a disservice not only to the students themselves but to employers of college graduates.

For more information on liberal arts majors, visit our Jobs for Liberal Arts Majors page.