The Liberal Arts: A Broad Education for Lifelong Success

Much has been written about the perceived value of a liberal arts education, particularly lately as some politicians have emphasized the need for colleges to graduate individuals who are armed with specific professional skills when entering the workforce. But as the debate wages on, more employers are beginning to weigh in, affirming liberal arts proponents’ belief in the benefits of a broad education.

“[Business leaders and HR directors] are frustrated because what you … major in doesn’t tell them enough about whether you have higher-order problem-solving [skills], and that’s what they’re looking for,” says Debra Humphreys, PhD, senior vice president for academic planning and public engagement with the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U). “They’re looking for people who can … deploy their knowledge and skills in a fast-changing, innovation-driven environment. They don’t care so much what your major is, but they do care about your ability to actually take what you know, communicate it, and use it to solve problems.”

These abilities are what many believe a liberal arts education provides students. In fact, 93 percent of employers surveyed by the AAC&U in 2013 agreed that “candidates who demonstrate a capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems [are] more important than their undergraduate majors.” In addition, four out of five employers agreed that all students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.

Established 100 years ago, the AAC&U is dedicated to making a liberal education and inclusive excellence the foundation of higher education. According to Humphreys, “liberal education” is another chapter in the evolution of liberal arts education.

The liberal arts curriculum originated in Europe — with roots in the Roman Empire — where it was taught exclusively in Latin with the intention of cultivating a particular quality of mind and a larger worldview. In the 20th century, its focus shifted to producing a middle class of socially responsible, well-informed citizens with common values.

Rather than focusing on specific disciplines — which were historically part of the liberal arts curriculum — AAC&U’s interpretation of a liberal arts education underscores its results.

“There’s a long history of the philosophy of a liberal education, and it emerges from a set of disciplines that were predominant in early years, but they’ve evolved over time,” Humphreys says. “[At AAC&U], we’re very careful about how we define a broad liberal education, which isn’t for us defined exclusively by a set of disciplines or specific majors, but instead is defined by what the philosophy of education does for students, what their outcomes are.”

Beyond critical thinking and problem solving, Humphreys says these outcomes include analytical and ethical reasoning, broader knowledge of the world and diverse perspectives, high-level intellectual and practical skills, and a strong sense of personal and social responsibility.

“If there’s anything that’s consistently been a focus of a liberal education over the years, it’s educating the whole person for a life of well-being and flourishing, which includes work, but also includes other aspects of one’s life: responsible citizenship, membership in a community, an ethical life as a family member, and a spiritual life,” she says.

This focus on the wider world, and the sense of duty to that world that is instilled in students, may be one reason why liberal education is so tied to equity and social justice. A liberal education, Humphreys says, cannot be achieved without addressing these issues.

“Students [at liberal arts colleges] are more likely to have been in an educational setting where they’ve been challenged to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own and to really grapple with diversity issues,” she says. “I think, because of that, they will be better prepared to live and work and to hopefully solve some of the intractable problems in our society related to diversity.”

Access to Liberal Arts Education

This type of education, which has historically been available only to those who could afford to attend private liberal arts institutions, is becoming more accessible to all students. The Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC), an organization made up of mostly small, public liberal arts colleges, is working to provide a liberal arts education at the public school price.

“We’re really aspirational. We look to prestigious privates that have been in the education landscape for centuries and try to model ourselves along those lines,” says COPLAC Director Bill Spellman. “We don’t have the fiscal resources that they do, the endowments that they do, but we aspire to the student learning outcomes they provide.”

“We serve a very large number of first-generation college students and nontraditional, older students,” he adds.

As public institutions, COPLAC schools offer students an education infused with both the strong foundational knowledge provided by a liberal arts education and specific professional skills needed in the workplace. Spellman believes that incorporating liberal arts components into the public college experience will aid graduates throughout their professional lives, particularly if they change career paths.

“In an interconnected world, liberal awareness — at least an introductory understanding of other cultures.— is critical for businesspeople in the 21st century; it’s critical for all professions,” he says. “… Those skills are going to advantage our graduates when they begin their careers and as they [work toward] professional goals throughout their lifetimes.— the ones who have those soft skills and can employ them in what we all know is a changing economic landscape.”

Critics argue that a liberal arts education fails to provide students real-life, applied-learning experience and doesn’t adequately prepare them for future careers. However, employment data prove otherwise.

In 2013, the unemployment rate for people who held a bachelor’s degree in the humanities was 5.4 percent, while the unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders across all disciplines was only slightly less at 4.6 percent. In addition, the median salary for those with an undergraduate degree in the humanities was only $7,000 less than all bachelor’s degree holders at $50,000.

Humphreys says that despite positive employment numbers, the AAC&U is encouraging its 1,300-plus member schools to integrate more hands-on learning experiences into undergraduate curricula. And while liberal arts majors may never achieve the same salary as students who study science or engineering, Spellman says that, contrary to popular belief, graduates of liberal arts colleges are not at a disadvantage when it comes to finding employment.

“We seem to have to make this argument again and again — it’s almost a generational thing — that there is no incongruity between arts and sciences and applied learning and job opportunities,” he says.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.