Work and Liberal Arts Graduates

Kent Atkinson · Nov 14 2019 · 6 min read

Kent Atkinson

Nov 14, 2019

A Common Misconception

According to a 2017 survey, college freshmen (85% of them) say the most important reason for attending college is to “be able to get a better job.” No doubt, many parents are in agreement. The most important reasons three and five, according to the survey, are “to get training for a specific career” (78%) and “to be able to make more money” (71.8%). Clearly, the vast majority of students view a college diploma as the admission ticket for vocational success.

Further, students believe specialized degrees lead to a specific career since 78% want “to get training for a specific career.” Ideally, then, college is a reliable set of train tracks and each major is a handcar; you simply climb up onto your preferred major, pump the handle up and down for four or five years, and you’ll arrive at that job.

Taken from the National Center for Educational Statistics

Obviously, moving from college to career isn’t so perfectly synchronized. Only 27% of college graduates work in a field related to their major. In other words, you are more likely to get a career disjunct of your college major. Additionally, about 33% of college students change their major at least once, 10% twice. Finally, millenials change jobs four to seven times before they are 30. This is the conclusion from such data: your specific college major doesn’t matter much in relation to your career.

But that doesn’t mean majors don't matter. Rather, it signifies that conventional wisdom about moving from college to a career is mostly wrong. But that is just half of the story—and here is where the liberal arts come in to play.

Future Jobs and Skills

The workforce is changing. Automation is eliminating task-centric jobs, and technology is rapidly changing the nature of work. It’s commonly called the 4th Industrial Revolution (as explained by visiting speaker Andrew Crapuchettes), and some estimates say that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 do not exist yet. This means, combined with the data above, that the move from college to career is fluid, organic, and fairly unpredictable. So how do you prepare for the unknown? How do you train for a job that doesn’t yet exist? How do you train for a job that will most likely change during your employment?

Studies on the future of the workforce are practically unanimous: adaptability is the highest vocational virtue. Adaptability is the amalgam of several skills like the ones listed in this report from Emsi: “most of the current literature on the future of work underscores this growing need for human skills such as flexibility, mental agility, ethics, resilience, systems thinking, communication, and critical thinking.” In short, the workforce demands liberal arts skills. As shown, the virtue of a classic T-shaped person is outdated, and a new model is needed.

Taken from Emsi's Robot-Ready report

This goes against the anecdotal wisdom that STEM skills lock down career security. STEM skills are valuable, but liberal arts skills are equally, and often more in demand. Most have heard these anecdotes, but a decade of data collection crystalizes these anecdotes into fact. Thanks to surveys by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Gallup, Emsi, and others, we know with certainty:

Taken from Emsi's Robot-Ready report

• “Nearly all employers surveyed (93 percent) say that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.”

• “More than 9 in 10 of those surveyed say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.”

• “Nearly all employers surveyed (95 percent) say they give hiring preference to college graduates with skills that will enable them to contribute to innovation in the workplace.”

• “More than 75% of employers say they want more emphasis on 5 key areas including: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.”

• “80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, all college students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.”

• “When read a description of a 21st-century liberal education, a large majority of employers recognize its importance; 74 percent would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.”

Arguments against the applicability of a liberal arts major wither under such weighty data. It’s the ghosts of old jokes like “what will you do with that, be a barista?” that still haunt higher education—but statistics and common sense are exorcising these assumptions.

Liberal Arts Earnings

Taken from Emsi's Robot-Ready report

And it pays well to have liberal arts skills. Emsi’s massive study on liberal arts graduates in the workforce now discovered:

Liberal arts majors do perform well in the labor market, achieving substantially better outcomes than workers with less education. Among workers with liberal arts BAs, 82 percent are working (70 percent full-time), and the average full-time worker earns $55,000 annually, $20,000 more than high school graduates... Two out of five liberal arts graduates, however, go on to earn graduate degrees, which further boosts their earnings to $76,000 annually, on average.

Liberal arts majors are financially sound. They also “hit their stride later in their careers, experiencing rapid wage growth in their late 30s and early 40s—the fastest among majors. They have solid earnings and consistently outstrip certain career-oriented majors.” But this shouldn’t be surprising. Liberal arts majors bring a big brain to a job, but little technical skill. As they rapidly learn, develop, and apply technical skill, their value climbs above other employees at an exponential rate.

New Saint Andrews Confidence

More than ever, liberal arts graduates are entering the workforce with confidence. In a recent alumni Q and A, New Saint Andrews graduates detailed the advantages they’ve employed in the workforce. Surprise, surprise, it was the adaptability, the intellectual dexterity, and critical thinking that actuated their success.

Alumni panel for the alumni Q and A

This is true for liberal arts students generally, but New Saint Andrews students specifically have additional advantages. The first is a healthy ambition and grit—by the end of their four years, the workload and academic rigor conspire to develop executive capacities in all students. They know how to get things done and embrace hard work.

Secondly, the college's semi-Socratic method and oral finals force students to achieve sophisticated communication skills. Close relationships with professors eliminate the possibility of hiding in class. All students are expected to articulate themselves both well and impromptu.

Lastly, the liberal arts courses instill the aforementioned skills in students. The New Saint Andrews single-focus major does not compromise into specialization; there is no core liberal arts curriculum that gets abandoned junior year for task-oriented training. All four years stay true to the liberal arts tradition so that students continue to grow in those essential and hard-earned qualities so many employers seek.

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