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Liberal Arts Education: Your Degree Is Worthless

This is a follow up to a Huffington Post Live segment which asked the value of a liberal arts education.

A 2012 study by Georgetown University notes the unemployment rate for non-technical majors, such as the Arts, is 11.1%, while Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) and Healthcare is 5.4%. With such a large gap in unemployment rates—and over 280,000 college graduates working minimum wage jobs in 2012—many are questioning the value of a college degree. More specifically, students are wondering if their liberal arts degree is worth the six-figure debt.

Many say no, citing the high cost of education, lower reported starting salary, and fewer available jobs. Often, we see the blame placed on the ideology behind a liberal arts degree instead of understanding “real world” application of such a degree.

In essence, a liberal arts education teaches students how to learn versus traditional programs, such as Industrial Technology, in which students are taught more specific skills. As the demand by employers for candidates with the ability to think critically, communicate effectively, and solve complex problems, a liberal arts degree is the natural progression, especially in a knowledge-based economy. These skills are necessary for a nation—and its individuals—to flourish.

With unemployment rates as low as they are for the arts, there is a perception of “failure” in the education process. I believe this perceived failure lies within the ability—or lack thereof—of graduates to apply classroom concepts to “real world” career opportunities.

The real world application and concept connections are not as obvious for liberal arts programs as they are for more technical degrees. For example, the romanticized view of being an art major is spending time spinning clay or painting, in a carefree environment. The reality is double-digit long studio hours packed into a research heavy schedule. Research in art? Yes.

It isn’t rare to find an art major spending more time studying and doing research than in studio, as it is nearly impossible to truly comprehend art history and theory without learning about the various historical periods and religious movements. Furthermore, studio time is not a chaotic event that somehow results in a piece of art being created. Because resources are limited, students are required to approach studio time with a plan for what they are making, the tools and materials needed, and how they will allocate their available time.

Art majors graduate with years of managing studio time and budgeting for materials and tools, along with the design and fabrication of collections and pieces. It is only in this understanding, that we see this plethora of project management experience. Additionally, art majors—to continue with this example—have studied a broad range of topics, from history to science and religion, and have experience applying that knowledge to abstract concepts such as the design of a tapestry, statue, or architectural feature.

The question is not: “How valuable is an art degree?” The question becomes: “How does an art major leverage the inherent value of their experiences?”

See, the real value of a liberal arts education is realized when graduates leverage their knowledge to solve problems. The key is for liberal arts majors, and all majors, to present their academic experiences as the transferable skills desired by employers in the “real world” instead of relying on recruiters, human resources and hiring managers to make those connections.

Outside of those seeking advanced degrees and employment in niche and technologically demanding fields, the particular major is not of the utmost importance. A degree alone is worthless because companies hire people—not pieces of paper.

If students can better leverage their educational experiences, we’ll better recognize the value of non-technical, liberal arts degrees.

Sources: Hard Times, Georgetown UniversityHuffington PostHuffington Post Live

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