What is a Liberal Arts Degree Worth These Days?

Although unemployment fell to 8.5% in December 2011, the lowest unemployment rate since March 2009, recent college graduates are still struggling to find jobs in their field of study.

But students in certain areas of study are having a harder time securing employment.

According to a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, unemployment is generally higher among those with degrees in non-technical fields; architecture majors face an unemployment rate of 13.9%, those with an arts degree face 11.1%, and liberal arts majors have a 9.4% rate. Students with majors in education and health face a lower rate of 5.4%.

Despite the field having lower employment rates, a liberal arts degree can be a great educational background and allow students to segue into a variety of careers, says Paul D’Anieri, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Florida.

“I keep reading statistics about how many times today’s graduates will change careers during their lifetimes,” he says. “A liberal arts degree is the ideal preparation for that kind of world, even if the degree does not channel one neatly into one’s first post-college job.”

Here’s what career and education experts said about misconceptions of a liberal arts degree and how it holds up with what employers are looking for in a challenging job market.

What to Expect

According to experts, liberal art classes tend to be smaller and offer more opportunities to work on what employers call “soft skills.”

“A liberal arts degree provides an inherent advantage in written and oral communication, interpersonal skills, problem solving, critical and analytical thinking, and adaptability to change,” says JP Hansen, career expert and author of The Bliss List: The Ultimate Guide to Living the Dream at Work and Beyond. “The ability to comprehend, communicate, and conquer problems is the name of the game and is implied with a liberal arts degree.”

Danielle Moss Lee, president and CEO of the Harlem Education Activities Fund (HEAF) explains that many graduates in more practical fields may find their skills outdated within five to 10 years, but liberal arts students have the chance to invest in skills such as writing that will be useful to them throughout their careers.

“A liberal arts degree is the ideal preparation for that kind of world, even if the degree does not channel one neatly into one’s first post-college job.”

- Paul D’Anieri, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Florida.

“If you can’t write as a college graduate, it limits you in terms of your opportunities,” she says.


Liberal arts degrees get an unjustified bad rap, which is often perpetuated by anecdotal stories about a single person searching for a job, says Carole Haber, dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University.

“Two misconceptions fuel this discussion:  one, that the ‘worth’ can be measured by dollars alone rather than through higher level skills gained through the degree, and two, that the value can be measured through the individual’s first job, rather than through the life course,” she says.

Liberal arts grads can have an advantage over their peers by potentially earning a higher salary in the future, says Lee.

“There has been data to suggest that even though liberal arts graduates in an entry-level position tend to earn less than their counterparts who have very career-focused [degrees], within 10 to 20 years they tend to outpace their counterparts in terms of income,” she says.

On top of that, a report from the Social Science Research Council shows students with skills typically taught in liberal arts programs tend to be more successful after graduation.

While liberal arts students usually have a wider variety of courses as opposed to more career-focused curriculum, the experts recommend taking a few specialized classes as well.

“It is not hard to pursue a liberal arts degree while also obtaining skills aimed primarily at the job market,” says D’Anieri. “Fluency in a foreign language can serve that function, as can advanced quantitative or statistical skills.”

Navigating the job market

The experts agree that because they aren’t necessarily tied to one specific field, liberal arts degree grads can go into a variety of jobs and positions, especially with their strengths in written and oral skills.

“A liberal arts major can go into education, public policy, law, intelligence, as well as business--let’s not forget that many, many business leaders have liberal arts degrees,” says D’Anieri.

Don’t limit yourself in terms of the jobs you apply for, but make sure you are able to quantify your skills and experiences, both on your resume and in person.

“Though many companies indicate a preference for a business degree during on-campus recruiting, don’t think for a second you’re not marketable with a liberal arts degree,” says Hansen. “The ability to write an impressive resume and communicate well in an interview make the degree discernible.”