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Rising college tuition and an uneven economic recovery have left many recent college graduates underemployed and saddled with debt. Even though the bachelor’s degree has historically been a solid investment, many have begun to question whether higher education, especially liberal arts programs, has value for today’s students facing an evolving economy.
To explore the questions around the value of the liberal arts, we analyze detailed information on millions of job postings and worker resumes from Burning Glass Technologies. From these data, we find that employers are looking not only for broad knowledge—that which purportedly comes from the liberal arts—but also for practical or technical skills that enable job seekers to show up job ready from day one.
We find over 3.8 million entry-level job openings in the US for graduates with bachelor’s degrees, 1.4 million of which liberal arts graduates could qualify for with their existing degrees and additional, incremental skills training. Examining the 1.4 million postings more closely, we find that these entry-level employment opportunities can pay comparable earnings to other entry-level postings available only to graduates with bachelor’s degrees in more specialized fields such as STEM. At the same time, the liberal arts graduates lacking identifiable and practical skills are more likely to be underemployed than other graduates and may suffer a wage penalty relative to their peers in other fields of study that may last throughout their work life.
From these findings, we argue that liberal arts graduates should master additional readily identifiable skills that can help them be more competitive in the labor market. For example, the right skills (e.g., digital design) added to the right major (e.g., fine art) can lead to a good job with a good future. The right skills depend on the career cluster students are entering, but generally adding practical or technical skills to a liberal arts foundation can enhance the prospects of graduates at time of career entry and drive earnings growth and occupational advancement over time.
Students in liberal arts programs also need to be aware that today’s job market is increasingly becoming characterized by a smorgasbord of skills that should be mixed and matched to increase employment opportunities and earnings outcomes. Consider, for example, the amalgamation of skills that market research analysts, for instance, now need— data analytics skills paired with marketing expertise, which are traditionally disparate skill sets.
Thus, rather than choosing the right degree or major, liberal arts or otherwise, students need to think carefully about building the right combination of skills to launch their careers. Colleges too need to be aware how a hybridization of jobs may be contributing to a growing irrelevance of today’s standard fields of study housed in traditional academic departments.
Colleges and universities can play a role by communicating these opportunities to students throughout their college careers, whether through career services, academic advising, informal advisory settings, or other institutionwide resources. Just as students must explore new ways of mastering and certifying their command of in-demand skills, colleges must explore new methods of informing students of employer needs and potential earnings outcomes and providing active career coaching for students to maximize the value of their educational experiences.
Rising college tuition and an uneven economic recovery have left many recent college graduates underemployed and saddled with debt. In turn, this has brought a growing focus on the link between higher education and career outcomes. Even though the bachelor’s degree has historically been a solid investment,1 many have begun to question whether higher education, especially liberal arts programs, has value and relevance for today’s students facing an evolving economy. With a flurry of headlines such as “Who Ruined the Humanities?” and “How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America,”2 these critiques often focus on culture wars that are wracking American higher education or perennial debates about how practical postsecondary education ought to be.
Here we eschew the concerns about culture wars and ask simpler questions: Are the hundreds of thousands of students graduating with degrees in the liberal arts, humanities, and related fields getting a good return on their investment of time and money in earning those degrees? If not, can students take steps to improve their outcomes? And can colleges take steps to incorporate marketable skills into the curricula of existing programs?
To explore these questions, we analyze detailed information on job postings and worker resumes from Burning Glass Technologies and show that employers clearly value core skills associated with liberal arts programs—such as critical thinking, communication, problem-solving, creativity, etc.—but that a lack of practical or technical skills may be limiting graduates’ career prospects in these fields. This report identifies not only a range of high-earning occupations that can be open to liberal arts students but also the specific skills that can help unlock them.
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