The Evils of a Liberal Arts Education


I’m constantly hearing from folks – particularly young adults – having a tough time landing a decent job, let alone developing a career with long-term potential.

In nearly every case they got a useless degree, dropped out, are unwilling to move to where the jobs are, are just not driven to do what it takes to be successful or were duped into thinking that making it in the wonderful world of Web 2.0 is like falling off a log.

Let’s talk about why that is, starting with some very low hanging fruit: useless degrees.

In this day and age, what in the world inspires so many supposedly career-minded young people to take on ginormous student loan debt to obtain liberal arts degrees that haven’t been in demand since resumes were done on typewriters? And where are their doting, or maybe the more accurate word is coddling, parents in all this?

I understand that maybe these young adults are into literature or causes, but are they also into greeting people at Walmart (NYSE:WMT), editing content for peanuts, dumpster diving for food and living hand-to-mouth for the rest of their lives? Or maybe they’re just taking the easy way out, or so they think.

Here’s the thing. Ten years after graduation, median salaries of students who attended elite liberal arts colleges are far lower than – as much as 50% lower, in some cases – those of students who graduated from equally selective research universities, according to the Wall Street Journal and data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Now that’s a real shocker. Who would have thought that students from Stanford and Harvard University, which crank out future technologists and executives by the boatload, would fare far better in the real world than their liberal arts counterparts from the likes of Swarthmore and Oberlin College?

Look, this is nothing new. When I was a kid back in the dark ages, my folks loved that I read a lot but they loved my interest in science and math even more. They weren’t geniuses, mind you, just working class people who wanted their kids to have the opportunities they never had and a chance for a better life.

Sure enough, my brother and I both ended up getting graduate technical degrees, but while I spent the bulk of my career in the high-tech industry, my passion turned out to be marketing and I’m now a management consultant and a writer. And get this, my brother got a calling early on and became a minister – a damned fine one at that.

Meanwhile, a brilliant coder named Bill Gates and a finance wiz who goes by Warren Buffett ended up giving billions to help make the world a better place. The point is, you don’t need a liberal arts degree to become well read, a good writer, an inspired man of God, or the most prolific philanthropists the world has ever known.

Granted, an English major can someday become an airline pilot or a neurosurgeon, but you just don’t see that a lot.

If we’re going to send our kids through years of college and they’re going to be burdened by crippling student loans, don’t we at least owe it to them to provide some counseling in the realities of supply and demand and the basics of personal finance. At least then they’d know what it takes to pay off their debt, have a fulfilling career, and achieve financial independence, all of which are pretty darn important.

Funny how much whining we hear about income disparity and technology eating up all the jobs, but I’m a baby boomer and, even way back in the 60s and 70s, my poor parents knew enough to guide us into fields where the jobs were. And those fields have not changed. In that sense, surprisingly little has changed.

I’ll tell you what has changed, though. Two things.

First, there’s all the misplaced hype around dropping out of school to become an entrepreneur and follow in the footsteps of the likes of Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Well, if you’ve got their talent, be my guest. But I’ve been watching the Theranos controversy and, while founder Elizabeth Holmes did drop out and she does wear the same black turtleneck uniform every day, she’s no Steve Jobs, if you ask me.

Second, starving writers are the new starving artists, courtesy of the digital economy, Web 2.0, the blogosphere, social media and user-generated content. Everybody talks about how easy it is to start an online business, but if it’s got anything to do with generating or marketing content, you’ve got about a billion competitors out there doing the same thing. Funny how nobody talks about that last part.

Since this is the point in the column where I’m supposed to tell you who’s to blame, let’s get that over with: Coddling parents, an education system that provides no practical real-world guidance whatsoever, young adults taking the path of least effort, and an overall preponderance of utopian thinking among all of the above.

In other words, everyone’s to blame. And yet, none of this is rocket science. Too many people are making bad choices based on misinformation and foolish ideals. Simple as that.