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Are Liberal Arts Degrees Useless?

Updated on June 7, 2017
Photo by Ben White
Photo by Ben White

Everyone knows that if you want a guaranteed career with a high paying salary, you should go for the ‘employable’ degrees such as law, engineering, or medicine. But what about all those other arts degrees? Why would anyone in their right mind go into tens of thousands of dollars of debt without a guaranteed career waiting for them at the end? Well, it turns out that it’s not necessarily WHAT you study so much as HOW you apply it.

The highest paying jobs are no-doubt associated with the more intensive and more expensive degree programs. For example, oncologists and radiologists (both requiring medical degrees) can clear well over 200 to 300 thousand dollars a year. Even engineers, computer scientists, and mathematicians make more than 100 thousand per year. Believe it or not, the average starting salary for a liberal arts major has actually increased in recent years to about 40 thousand dollars, but this is still small when compared to other careers. There are, however, some liberal arts fields that pay a decent wage, assuming graduates are able to find work in their specialization. economists, archeologists, and sociologists can easily rake in 100 thousand per year if they can find a good job placement. But that still doesn’t account for the more general degrees such as history, philosophy, language studies, and others.

When choosing a degree, it can be difficult to decide whether to study something you are interested in or something that will guarantee you a career. It is a massive commitment to make with your time and money, which should not be taken lightly. However, choosing one degree over another does not have to mean choosing money over a lifetime of debt. An education is always a valuable thing to have. Benjamin Franklin himself stated “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

Today, student debt is the highest it has ever been. Collectively, American students owe a staggering 1.3 trillion dollars in debt as of 2017. It’s no wonder there is so much pressure to pursue a course of study that you know will pay off well. That being said, do you really think it’s worth dismissing your passion because it might be harder to find work? Many would argue that attending university is always a worthwhile investment no matter the cost or the professional title it gives you. Why? Because it will teach you to challenge yourself, and think differently, which is a skill that is valuable to any employer. All you have to do is find what makes you different, and what makes you stand out in a competitive job market. If you want to study a bachelor of arts, be prepared to go the extra mile to sell yourself and your skills to future employers.

Photo by Tamarcus Brown
Photo by Tamarcus Brown

What problems can the arts solve?

Any properly educated person would agree that the arts and humanities are an essential part of a well-rounded education. So why is that not reflected in the unemployment rates of liberal arts graduates? Perhaps a person with a business degree doesn’t see the value of a prospective employee with a degree in literature or philosophy. That’s not so say that a business person is not as well educated as an arts major, or vice versa. It simply shows that the two place different merit on a different set of skills.

A healthy society with a strong economy needs a balance of skilled professionals and creative thinkers. You can’t have one without the other. Just look at the beautiful things that can happen when two disciplines such as art and science come together. Coming at a scientific problem with an open, creative mind can shed new light on a subject and open up new ideas. Someone can easily master a skill by acquiring all the information available and practicing the motions a thousand times, but innovation can only come from looking at things differently, and that is exactly what arts studies can do.

While you may not become a neurosurgeon with a liberal arts degree, you will learn a whole range of other skills that you wouldn’t have otherwise. And the skills you learn, such as critical thinking, can be applied to any number of different professions. For example, a degree in literature will teach you how to write, and writing is one of the most highly sought after skills on the market. Maybe you didn’t study business, but you’ll be better at persuading people. Your writing and analytical skills will be twice as good as anyone else's because you learned how to decipher Shakespeare and appreciate Dostoevsky.

Photo by Tran Mau Tri Tam
Photo by Tran Mau Tri Tam

People used to think that Liberal Art degrees would leave you living in your parent’s basement at thirty years old. The truth is, if that’s the mindset you have, then that’s very well where you might end up. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just because you choose to spend four years of your life studying something you’re interested doesn’t mean you are sentenced to pouring coffee and serving cocktails for the rest of your life. You need only to put a little extra effort into selling yourself as a uniquely skilled individual who can solve problems others cannot.

We as a culture have failed to realize the importance of the arts, and it is our responsibility to remember and reiterate their value in education. It’s true that arts graduates statistically earn less money than those holding a doctorate in medicine, science, or mathematics, but they have an equally valuable education that often holds a lot of untapped potential. Students with liberal arts degrees may need to put an extra effort into promoting themselves and they might spend a little longer waiting for a career relevant to their field, but with time and hard work, the investment will pay off. Are liberal arts degrees useless? Hardly. But we need to start seeing them as a counterpart to those higher paying professions, and not just a runner-up.


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