So you have a liberal arts degree…

September, 2012

From worrying about homesickness to navigating roommate relationships, parents have always had plenty of worries when their child goes off to college. Today’s economic climate, however, has added a new parental concern to the list: Will my child be able to get a job when he or she graduates in four years?

It’s a question that comes up more often and earlier than it did a few years ago, arising even when high school students are looking at colleges, said Sue Oatey, vice president and dean of student affairs at Concordia College in Moorhead.

The question seems to be more urgent when a student is majoring in the liberal arts, Oatey said, because the student’s major doesn’t necessarily offer a direct path into one career.

“Families are willing to invest in a college education, but they’re worried about employability. They want to know, ‘What can my child do with an English or history major?’” Oatey said. “They understand better what the student can do with pre-law or pre-med.”

At Macalester College, the trend toward providing data about recent graduates’ starting salaries and the jobs they are getting means families are asking a lot of similar questions.

“I definitely get those kinds of questions from prospective students and their parents,” said John Mountain, associate director of the Career Center at Macalester College. “They want to know, 'Where’s the data?' Once they are here, I get, 'What’s possible with this degree?’”

Preparing students for careers

Bethany students and professorJust how concerned parents are about their child’s future with a liberal arts major often depends on how much exposure the parents have had to the liberal arts and whether they went to a liberal arts institution themselves, said Eric Woller, dean of academic affairs at Bethany Lutheran College.

“From the outside looking in, it can seem like the liberal arts aren’t really training students to do anything, to do any specific job,” Woller said. “But once we start talking about what the liberal arts mean to us and how they fit in with our goals, they aren’t as skeptical. I explain that the liberal arts provide a broad exposure to many subjects, along with a lot of depth in one area.”

Mountain said that often, measuring graduates' success directly out of college — on things like salaries, for example — is more complicated for Macalester’s liberal arts graduates because many head to graduate school or a volunteer program, like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, right after graduation.

“Students’ first steps might be more varied rather than linear. We don’t always fit nicely into categories for salary information, but when we look longer term, our graduates are very successful,” Mountain said. “I think what liberal arts colleges teach aligns very well with what employers want, in terms of communication skills, being able to analyze large amounts of information and being able to work in a team.”

And there is data to back that up. The National Association of Colleges and Employers, for example, conducts an annual “Job Outlook” survey asking employers what skills they most want in employees. High on that list are skills that liberal arts institutions have traditionally focused on — the ability to work in a team, to verbally communicate with people inside and outside of the organization and to make decisions and solve problems.

Recruiters at Deloitte, a worldwide financial consulting firm, often say that while they can teach employees about accounting or how to use a given tool, they can’t teach critical thinking or how to synthesize information. Alex Evangelides, a Deloitte recruiter based in the Twin Cities, confirms that read. He said that the company is committed to hiring graduates of liberal arts colleges. “Many of the traits we seek to identify in our candidates — a deep intellectual curiosity coupled with excellent communication skills, a demonstrated history of attempting and excelling at new ventures, a preference for collaboration and a work ethic that amplifies when challenges appear — go hand in hand with a liberal arts education.”

Other benefits of the liberal arts

Woller noted that though Bethany has added career-oriented majors like media arts and communications in recent years in response to student interest, a liberal arts major is in some ways more practical than a career-specific one, because the working world and job descriptions are changing so quickly. “You often hear that the jobs we’re training students to do don’t exist yet,” Woller said.

Even in an economy that encourages students to look at the marketability of their major, humanities majors like English and history are still among the most popular at Bethany, he noted. Both majors offer flexibility and adaptability to many different careers, Woller said.

Concordia students studying abroadA liberal arts education not only prepares students for the multiple careers they are likely to have, Oatey said, it gives students a global perspective and a background in ethical decision-making, too.

“I think liberal arts colleges really challenge their students in terms of ethics, which we hear from employers that they are looking for,” Oatey said. “They also teach students that the world is always changing and that they need to be change agents, which can give them a sense of control.”

Woller said he encourages students to take classes they might never have initially considered, as well as to get involved in activities outside of class. Activities can help a student build leadership and organizational skills as well as teamwork, he said.

Helping students see their own potential

Students don’t have to have their entire career path mapped out by graduation and Mountain assures them that they’re not the only one who doesn’t know exactly what they want to be when they grow up.

Students should make sure they aren’t isolated from the outside world during college and begin developing a network early, Mountain advises. The Career Services office helps students make connections with alumni in the working world, as well as to understand the variety of paths that are available to them.

“Our office is a research arm — we can take what students want to know and do some of that legwork for them. Students are easily overwhelmed, so we can say, ‘Here are five resources you can start with,’ or set them up with a few informational interviews. Once they have done a couple of those, they are more comfortable,” he said.

Time-wise, students should focus on developing their connections, Mountain said, because that’s what will most likely to lead to a job. Sometimes it takes a conversation for students to realize that they already have a network of professors and internship supervisors who can help them.

It also might take a conversation to help a student understand just how they can market their liberal arts education, he said. Talking to students sometimes “pulls out these amazing interesting things that they’ve done but didn’t mention on their resume. They need to be able to articulate what they’ve done and be proactive about what they bring to the table.”

At Bethany, Woller teaches a first-year orientation class in which he discusses with students how they can best explain and promote their liberal arts education — and how the skills that they’re learning translate to different careers.

Students might not realize just how many skills they possess because of their liberal arts education, Oatey said. “Students might have the assumption that the way we do things is the way everyone does things. They need to be encouraged to talk about ways that a liberal arts education is special, how faculty have asked them to stretch themselves and use all kinds of skills.”

By Erin Adler, communications associate

Related Topics: Career value