That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree May Be Worth More Than You Think

That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree May Be Worth More Than You Think

It’s a truism among scientists, businesspeople, and overbearing parents alike that a liberal arts education isn’t worth much—especially these days, when the overall value of a college degree is being called into question. Nonetheless, Yoni Appelbaum at the Atlantic finds that this bit of conventional wisdom may not be entirely wise, as many undergraduates who study business (one of America’s most popular majors) are graduating “without having made the gains in writing or critical-thinking skills they’ll require to succeed over the course of their careers, or to adapt as their technical skills become outdated and the nature of the opportunities they have shifts over time”:

A 2014 study of the Collegiate Learning Assessment test—administered to some 13,000 undergraduates as they entered and exited university—found that business, health, and education majors substantially underperformed students in the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and engineering. The authors then adjusted their results to account for the academic abilities of students entering these majors—and found that business and education majors still showed substantially lower gains in writing, complex reasoning, and critical thinking by the time they’d graduated.

Those are the weaknesses that a liberal-arts education can address. …

Businesses want workers who have “the ability to think, the ability to write, the ability to understand the cultural or historical context of whatever business decision they’re making,” added Rachel Reiser, assistant dean at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. If undergraduates want to find success, they need to master those skills. “We’re trying to help them understand there may be so much more to a business education,” [Erika Walker, an assistant dean at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business,] said.

Tom Perrault had a similar thought about the tech industry in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year, predicting that companies dealing in digital technology would need to hire more liberal arts majors as their focus shifted more and more toward user experience and design:

For example, launching a product with a mediocre user interface or unintuitive user experience is currently OK, if not encouraged as best practice. It’s part of the old Silicon Valley mantra: launch a product that barely works and iterate, iterate, iterate. But as more companies move to the digital space, they’re discovering that “launch and beg for patience” doesn’t hold true anymore. Ask Twitter how hard it is to gain new users, or ask anyone over 40 how to use Snapchat. You’ll see that neither service is designed for the mass consumer.

But as consumers begin to lead a digital life, companies must meet them where they are, regardless of their tech savvy. Companies with easy-to-use interfaces and intuitive functionality will win every time over companies that create any roadblock to using a product. That’s where liberal arts skills come in — and where liberal arts students will finally have their day in the sun. Soon, companies will rush to hire these skills in the same way that they compete for coders and engineers today.