A Market-based Argument for Liberal Arts Degrees

In 2013, Jaison Abel and Richard Deitz of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published a study about the extent to which the jobs of Americans with college degrees matched their undergraduate majors.[1] Two of this study’s findings have the potential to reshape both the way Americans understand the value of higher education and how college graduates plan their future careers. First, as has been mentioned elsewhere, there is a significant difference between rural and urban workers in terms of how closely jobs are related to workers’ major field of study: urban workers have better job matching and earn higher wages as individuals.[2] Second, a strong majority of Americans, over 62%, with bachelor’s degrees are working in jobs that do not require a college degree at all. These findings call for a closer look at the efficacy of college degrees, at the growing economic divide between rural and urban America, and at how industries determine minimum hiring requirements.

Another of this study’s findings is especially important for the way Americans can, and should, think about liberal arts degrees: 73% of U.S. college graduates work in jobs completely unrelated to their college major. This finding undermines the positions of people on both sides of an educational divide: those who value liberal arts degrees as intrinsically valuable, and those who want to replace liberal arts programs with majors connected to specific jobs. Consequently, it could also open the way forward to a new and better way of talking about the value of a liberal arts education: its market value.

A useful illustration of the currently polarized discussion of the value of the liberal arts comes from March 2018, when the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point made an audacious announcement.[3] Facing chronic budget shortfalls, and spurred by a desire to address the immediate business needs of the state of Wisconsin and its surrounding region, the university announced that it would cut “programs with lower enrollment, primarily in the traditional humanities and social sciences” and instead invest in majors with “clear career pathways.” The institution proposed dropping thirteen majors, including history, English, philosophy, sociology, and several foreign languages. The plan to cut these liberal arts majors was in ideological alignment with Republican Governor Scott Walker’s failed 2015 attempt to amend the “Wisconsin Idea,” the portion of the state’s code that had previously defined the university system’s goals as teaching students to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition.” Walker sought to replace those goals with the phrase “meet the state’s workforce needs,” implicitly dismissing the intrinsic value of a liberal arts degree.[4]

Public debates over Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s program cuts were similar to those concerning Walker’s proposed changes to the Wisconsin Idea. 2017 Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate Samantha Stein, quoted in the student newspaper The Pointer, lamented her alma mater’s decision to give up “what a college education is all about,” which she defined as “the opening of one’s mind to other cultures, languages, the arts, political science and so much more.”[5] Stein’s insistence on education for its own sake echoes opponents of Walker’s earlier attempt to designate a college degree as a career path; these opponents asserted that creative exploration and individual enlightenment were the bedrocks of higher education. Walker and his allies countered that the high price of tuition necessitated that a college degree lead directly to a job.

Although both points of view are valid to some degree, neither reflects an understanding of the job market and of college education grounded in the economic reality that Abel and Deitz’s study exposes. For Walker and his allies, the study completely upends the idea that there are definite and “clear career pathways” for new college graduates because it demonstrates that direct pathways are not the most common result of college degrees. Students should not choose a major solely to get a specific job, or even enter a specific industry, for three out of four will end up working in an entirely different field—thereby capitalizing on an opportunity for advancement previously unavailable to workers. Furthermore, the idea that a university should create majors to meet immediate “workforce needs” is problematic given the realities of the modern, rapidly changing job market.

Yet Abel and Deitz’s study also has implications for how liberals like Stein talk about, or perhaps should talk about, the value of a liberal arts education. Given that three-fourths of graduates will end up in careers outside their fields of study, students need a foundational, broad-based set of knowledge and—more importantly—transferable skills that enable a worker to move from job to job and field to field. Many humanities and liberal arts programs are ideally suited to teach those skills, such as communication, leadership, and problem solving, that recent studies have demonstrated will have a direct and real bearing on their graduates’ ability to navigate the twenty-first-century job market.[6] Although it might pain liberals to make it, this market-based argument is more likely to persuade critics of higher education than Stein’s insistence that one should study the liberal arts for the sake of the “opening of one’s mind” or to attain the Wisconsin Idea, the Wisconsin university system’s statement of purpose that Walker sought to remove: that higher education is about “improv[ing] the human condition.”[7] Those ideals should not be abandoned. However, asking graduates to embrace the liberal arts for their intrinsic value when they are saddled with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars of debt, is a hard sell. As Abel and Deitz’s study shows, it is also an unnecessary one.

An increasing number of college students commute to college, work at least part-time, and are raising families while going to classes.[8] Their concerns about the economic payoff of a liberal arts education, for which they are sacrificing a great deal of time, money, and energy, are legitimate. Abel and Deitz have shown that the answer that they get a degree “to get a job” is insufficient, for that job is more likely than not to be unrelated to their major course of study. Conversely, educators’ blithe admonition to students “to expand their minds” often seems an inadequate response to the concrete economic realities facing most college students. Although it certainly will not end debates over the meaning of higher education or the value of liberal arts degrees, Abel and Deitz’s study implies that the more persuasive argument on behalf of a liberal arts degree is also the most accurate. A liberal arts degree will help students gain the diverse set of skills and knowledge they need to compete and thrive in the labor marketplace of the twenty-first century.

However, educators must first accept the realities of the marketplace that students are actually facing. For instance, since today’s job market is constantly changing, the most successful workers long-term will have a set of skills that they can use in multiple careers. This means that liberal arts majors, despite the prevailing discussion over the intrinsic value of their degrees, have even more market value now than they had in the twentieth century. Similarly, although it might seem counterintuitive, the thinner local labor markets in rural areas make such transferable academic skills even more useful than they are in the thicker local labor markets of urban areas. Consequently, students planning to remain in or relocate to rural areas are better served by choosing liberal arts degrees over majors that provide job-specific training. These economic realities not only bolster arguments in favor of liberal arts degrees, but also necessitate deeper discussions about the purpose and efficacy of higher education that go beyond the neat dichotomy that has come to dominate the public conversation.

By Andrew R. Polk
Assistant Professor of History
Middle Tennessee State University


[1] Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz, “Agglomeration and Job Matching among College Graduates,” (New York: Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2012, revised 2014), online at https://www.newyorkfed.org/medialibrary/media/research/staff_reports/sr587.pdf

[2] Brad Plumer, “Only 27 Percent of College Grads Have a Job Related to Their Major,” Washington Post May 20, 2013, online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/05/20/only-27-percent-of-college-grads-have-a-job-related-to-their-major/?utm_term=.1737fe77e6d2

[3] “UW-Stevens Point Proposes Adding, Cutting Programs to Prepare for Future,” Press Release, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, March 5, 2018, online at https://www.uwsp.edu/ucm/news/Pages/Repositioning18.aspx

[4] Valerie Strauss, “How Gov. Walker Tried to Quietly Change the Mission of the University of Wisconsin,” Washington Post, February 5, 2015, online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/02/05/how-gov-walker-tried-to-quietly-change-the-mission-of-the-university-of-wisconsin/?utm_term=.763e07b492cb

[5] Kathryn Wisniewski, “Campus Responds to Curriculum Restructuring Proposal,” The Pointer, March 14, 2018, online at http://thepointeruwsp.com/2018/03/14/campus-responds-to-curriculum-restructuring-proposal/

[6] Emma Whitford, “Employers Want Liberal Arts Grads,” Inside Higher Ed, November 13, 2018, online at https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/11/13/new-report-shows-colleges-how-bridge-gap-between-liberal-arts-and-work-force and Michelle R. Weise, “Leveraging a New Rosetta Stone: Deciphering Human + Technical Skills to Navigate the Future of Work,” Competency-based Education, 2019;e01186. https://doi.org/10.1002/cbe2.1186

[7] Wisniewski, “Campus Responds” and Valerie Strauss, “A University of Wisconsin Campus Pushes Plan to Drop 13 Majors—including English, history and philosophy,” Washington Post, March 21, 2018, online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2018/03/21/university-of-wisconsin-campus-pushes-plan-to-drop-13-majors-including-english-history-and-philosophy/?utm_term=.84d8536a8ad5

[8]Emily Deruy and National Journal, “At Universities, More Students Are Working Full-Time,” The Atlantic, October 28, 2015, online at https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/at-universities-more-students-are-working-full-time/433245/

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One Response to A Market-based Argument for Liberal Arts Degrees

  1. Fiona Tolhurst says:

    The market-based argument is one that will appeal to both faculty in various departments and students studying the liberal arts.

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