Liberal arts graduates looking increasingly attractive. To the corporate world.

Don't be so quick to make fun of your poetry-loving, theater-going, philosopher-quoting siblings this Thanksgiving--research suggests they've got a leg up on the job market

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"I can't believe they're paying me for knowing stuff like this!"

"I can't believe they're paying me for knowing stuff like this!"


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This Thanksgiving, you may be welcoming a sibling or friend back from college, home for the holidays and eager to talk to you all about the wonders of post-secondary life.

They’ll rave about campus life, no doubt, but they might even spare some time talking about what they’re actually studying. Your finance and business major sister will extol their lessons on global finance and Oracle Financials, while your pre-law brother will spend the majority of Thanksgiving dinner relating to you everything the Rehnquist Supreme Court should have done, and everything the Roberts court will do right.

But your theater major cousin? Your Women’s Studies sister? Odds are, they’ll get a more lukewarm welcome home.

That’s because traditionally, and even more so recently, we’ve learned to think of college as a simple vocational and career training program, one where, if you’re not learning a useful skill, you’re just gobbling up borrowed money for the dubious luxury of learning unmarketable skills. Therefore, science, engineering and math are supposedly the Big Money Majors, while anything involving books and history practically guarantees unemployability.

Colleges not catering to this approach are often highlighted as what not to do with a college education. Since liberal arts schools like Wellesley College don’t provide “explicitly vocational majors,” students at elite institutions tend to gravitate towards what they see as the most immediately employable fields, like biology, engineering, computer science, or economics, according to an Inside Higher Ed article.

And legislators, when discussing the arts, are often even more blunt about what they think the job prospects for these graduates are. Senator Marco Rubio once laughed at students planning to borrow $40,000 “to be a Greek philosophy major. Because the market for Greek philosophers is tight.” And Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin said this fall, “If you’re studying interpretive dance, God bless you, but there’s not a lot of jobs right now in America looking for people with that as a skill set.”

But increasingly, research and observation is giving more reasons to pursue the liberal arts, not fewer.

Recently, the New York Times reported that, of all the myths circulating about choosing a major, choosing college and choosing an overall academic direction, one of the more pervasive is that studying liberal arts doesn’t pay.

“The typical (business school) graduate earns $2.86 million over a lifetime,” the article read. “(But) when you put business graduates side by side with those who graduated with what are considered low-paying majors, you’ll see that those who are slightly above the median salary in their fields are not that far behind the business grads. For example, an English major in the 60th percentile makes $2.76 million in a lifetime, a major in psychology $2.57 million and a history major $2.64 million.”

When young people are told, by well-meaning relatives and the overall media narrative that going off to school to study Turkish poetry and pottery will land you in the unemployment line, or on the city streets, offering to lecture on Rimbaud for spare change, they’re not being told the full story. First of all, a liberal arts education does not require students to zero in on some minute area of knowledge, to the exclusion of all else. That’s what graduate school is for. A liberal arts education teaches you to think, as it has done for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

“What a liberal education at its best does…is to allow people to range widely, to read widely, to explore their passions,” CNN correspondent Fareed Zakaria told Forbes in 2015. “Let one interest lead to another and on and on. I think that kind of breadth and the ability to feed your curiosity and indulge is incredibly important.”

Second of all, employers and companies are increasingly on the hunt for graduates with critical thinking skills and problem solving abilities.

A 2015 Hart Research employer survey reported employers saying they put the most value on “demonstrated proficiency in skills and knowledge that cut across all majors,” and that they prized “written and oral communication skills” the highest, along with decision-making, teamwork skills, critical thinking and being able to apply knowledge to real-world situations.

“Indeed, most employers say that these cross-cutting skills are more important to an individual’s success at their company than his or her undergraduate major,” the report said.

Zakaria echoed this sentiment as well: “(A liberal arts education is) what, now in the corporate world, one would call synergy, or out of the box thinking, or the intersection of disciplines.”

That’s crucial, because the corporations and businesses need innovation and forward-thinking, particularly if they’re going to continue to turn a buck in whatever the 21st century global economy winds up becoming. Employers don’t want employees who are used to filling in study guides or reciting rote facts back in someone’s face. They want someone who can comb through sources and find something new to say, or someone who can look at a problem and say, “Well, have you tried looking at it like this?”

Recall that Steve Jobs studied calligraphy in order to perfect the aesthetic design of our beloved iPhones, and that Albert Einstein played the violin. Not exactly basement-dwellers, those two.

So when your dance major neighbor or Greek philosophy grad student brother come home for the weekend, don’t be so quick to scorn their choice of fields or laugh at their familiarity with Elizabethan drama. Odds are higher than you realize that they might be your boss one day.

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Liberal arts graduates looking increasingly attractive. To the corporate world.