BY JORI HAMILTON
The power of a college degree in today’s workforce cannot be understated. Having a degree is an important indicator to hiring professionals that a student has learned the necessary basics required to qualify for a position within a company. Furthermore, it puts students on a professional track that will allow them to move up and increase their salary potential far more quickly than someone without a degree.
The real debate begins when determining whether the more advantageous route to a degree is through a specialized professional education or a liberal arts education. Both offer substantial positives and negatives, especially depending on which type of career is ultimately chosen. Given the impressive rates of globalization and collaboration of companies, there is a growing benefit of obtaining a liberal arts style of education.
Every year, more and more companies are expanding opportunities in career paths linked to a rapidly evolving global market. Unfortunately, in many of these global workplaces, there is a growing gap between employees and skills necessary to navigate the marketplace. Employers are looking for new employees that are able to utilize critical thinking and communication skills, which are exactly the skills gained in a liberal arts college.
Specialized vs. Liberal: What’s the Difference?
The obvious major difference between specialized professional education and a liberal arts one is the scope of the educational focus. Within a specialized professional education experience, students are largely focused on a specific topic and trained to leave school ready to become a professional. It is a particularly useful educational style for students that are interested in STEM topics or who know exactly what they want to do upon graduating.
A liberal arts education, on the other hand, focuses students on a variety of topics and ultimately prepares them for a range of possible careers after graduation. A liberal arts education builds critical thinking skills by giving students the opportunity to engage and connect skills learned in different departments — for instance, economics and psychology. Liberal art educational styles are more common in the humanities and useful for students seeking options or diverse career experiences.
That is not to say that there is not some level of crossover between educational styles. There is plenty of room for creativity and discovery in STEM education, and there is plenty of room to specialize in humanities. Which route is best ultimately depends upon the career goals of each particular student.
Chameleon Skill Sets
Perhaps the single most significant benefit of taking the liberal arts educational path is the development of an incredibly broad and diverse skill set. Professors work across disciplines to give students an understanding of all subjects ranging from history to biology. This well-rounded education and exposure to multiple fields of study can help graduates make creative connections and communicate fluently about a wide range of topics.
Liberal arts graduates are the chameleons of the workforce in that they are able to change and adapt to whatever situation they are thrown into. Students are taught to develop core skills such as writing, analysis, and research, which can be adapted in some form or another to any career. The development of critical thinking skills, which is a major focus in liberal education styles, enables students to look at problems from multiple angles and look past major biases and can block progress.
Likewise, graduates are encouraged to express the connections between topics that they have made, building ever important communication and interpersonal skills. As workforce chameleons, liberal arts graduates can use these skills to navigate important presentations and collaborate more effectively with co-workers and clients wherever they are employed.
This liberal arts education and the ability to blend in well in any office space, especially one that is rapidly globalizing, grants many advantages in the workplace. While one may think that employers value STEM skill sets, many large companies actually look for skills that are learned in the liberal arts.
“Think of a quintessential tech company and Google might spring to mind,” write the child education experts at Kindercare. “Looking to hire the best talent, Google studied its own workforce to understand what skills made its top managers so successful. The Silicon Valley heavyweight naturally expected mastery of STEM skills would be key—but no. Instead, qualities like empathy, creativity, communication, and critical thinking were the superpowers that their top performers shared.”
It’s an idea that’s backed by research. The Association of American Colleges and Universities completed an online survey and found that 93 percent believe critical thinking, clear communication, and complex problem-solving skills are more valuable than a specific undergraduate major when looking at prospective employees. Additionally, four out of five indicated that they preferred an employee with a broad knowledge of many topics.
On average, data indicates that people are changing jobs more and more frequently. Gone are the days when a person would work with the same company for their entire career. A liberal arts degree can be a significant benefit here as well. Because liberal arts degree holders are more chameleon-like, they are more likely to successfully move between companies and continue building upon skills gained in each work experience.
Some experts have noted that immediately after graduation it can be more difficult for liberal arts students to find a steady job than those graduating with a specialized professional degree. However, this can be buffered with greater amounts of experiential learning, internships during and immediately after a degree program, and further education. Many measures indicate that by mid-career those with liberal arts bachelor degrees make as much or more than those with professional degrees.
Overall, there are numerous benefits to having a liberal arts degree, particularly when it comes to filling a critical workplace gap in critical thinking and communication skills. In a globalized economy and rapidly changing ways of doing business, these skills are more important than ever. Employers are eager to hire employees with a broad understanding of multiple subjects and an ability to fit in in a wide array of situations.
Bio: Jori Hamilton is a writer from the Northwest who is passionate about education and social justice issues. You can follow her on Twitter @HamiltonJori