Friday, October 01, 2010

Translating the Value of the Liberal Arts Degree

How do we reach parents and students increasingly anxious about the economic outcomes of their undergraduate degrees and still manage to convince the next generation to invest in liberal arts majors and classes? Proclaiming the "value" of the liberal arts in the abstract (good citizen, critical thinking skills, flourishing life of the mind, etc.) is no longer working, writes Richard A. Greenwald  in an article today at Inside Higher Ed:

"We need to speak more concretely to the economic as well as the intellectual value of a liberal arts degree," he observes. 

I agree, of course; boy do I agree. I only wish the concrete rather than abstract value of a liberal arts degree, and now Ph.D., was clearer to me, too. I went into this at age 18 (in the beginning at least) believing that the liberal arts allowed for the greatest amount of self exploration, creative expression, reading/writing, and critical analysis, all elements I sought in a major, and especially in a lifelong career, at the time. I still seek these elements in my pursuit of a professional life but have now come to realize that they're not appreciated by the vast majority of people in the US and that getting paid a decent salary to be a well-rounded, smart, critical thinker and writer is incredibly difficult. The economic value is still lost to me personally.

So who can blame these skeptical parents and undergrads? We liberal arts majors don't usually have good news to report about our personal financial situations, at least not at the moment. Well, come to think of it, none of my friends who majored in English, history, or anthropology back in the day ended up where they would have liked. Let me give you an illustration of where they are now.

Some highly subjective but legit examples of real-world results of liberal arts degrees:
1. Waitress for a catering company ($12.00 per hr)
2. Library assistant ($15.00 per hour)
3. Library clerk ($11.00 per hr)
4. UPS driver ($10.00 per hr)
5. High school teacher ($45,000)
6. Adjunct university instructor ($12,00 per year)
7. Administrative assistant ($38,000)
8. Assoc. director of an academic program ($40,000)
9. Tenure-track professor ($50,000)
10. Freelance writer (negligible salary info.)
11. After-school programs consultant ($13.00 per hr)
12. Unemployment benefits

Where's my change?

I could list more results but the proof is in the pudding: no one I know with a liberal arts background makes more than $50K per year, and these are people in their 30s and 40s. Now, for some, a salary ranging anywhere from $12-50K, with both $12 & $50K being the result of many additional years in school, might be good enough. I say let's advise all of those people with low salary expectations (and hence no knowledge of the costs of real world living) to major in the liberal arts. Then no one will be bitter and shocked down the line.

My list is also reflective of the major "economic shift" that Greenwald talks about: "Today estimates are that over 25 percent of the American population is working as contingent labor -- freelancers, day laborers, consultants, micropreneurs. Sitting where we do it is easy to dismiss this number because we assume it comes from day laborers and the working class, i.e., the non-college-educated."

Um, NO. I don't assume it comes solely from the non-college-educated. Only someone sitting relatively pretty would make such a statement!

"Today’s liberal arts graduates will need to function in an economy that is in some ways smaller. Most will work for small firms and many will simply work on their own. They will need to multitask as well as blend work and family," he concludes.

None of this sounds that promising to me as a job-seeking Ph.D. in my 30s. Can't imagine how it would sound if I was 18.


Anonymous said...

You don't know anyone with a liberal arts degree making more than $50K/years?

1. You need to expand your friend base. In my experience, the liberal arts majors are the ones who rise to the top of the company and oversee all those who chose voc-tech majors that guaranteed they'd become nothing more than cogs in the machine and miserable by 30. The liberal arts majors can think and solve problems. The voc-tech people know how to do what they're told.

2. $50K/year sounds pretty good to me. How much money does someone really need? I've found that having a liberal arts degree means that money doesn't satisfy my. I don't need stuff to be happy. I need a roof over my head, my bills paid, and my dignity. I don't need to be undereducated, living in a McMansion, and carrying a made-in-China Coach bag to be delusional--I mean happy.

3. A college degree should not be a voc-tech degree, but universities and colleges are destroying the value of the BA by advertising themselves as job training centers because they want warm bodies with checkbooks and financial aid. Anyone who looks at college as a salary guarantee should really be asking why we're all being asked to get an expensive college degree when most of us just want vocational training. Of course, voc-tech education isn't designed to encourage thought or the questioning of ideas or authority. (See #1.)

4. If you want to be really helpful, don't encourage liberal arts majors to pursue low-paying jobs. One's major doesn't determine one's salary; one's choice of job determines one's salary. If you major in history, don't do so with the intention of working at the local historical society. I also encourage you to read this:

Eliza Woolf said...

Thanks for your comment, anonymous. I can see your point about needing to expand my friend base! ha ha. No, really, I know there are plenty of liberal arts majors out there who are making $50K or more per year, but the vast majority of humanists I know are poor.

Why are they poor? Because they pursued their passions with tunnel vision and did not train to work in, and "rise to the top" of, corporate America. (Many of them outright disdain the corporate world, hence their poverty.) Liberal arts majors who can live the life of the mind and make pragmatic career decision are much more likely to succeed.

I'd like to see a greater emphasis on career training for liberal arts majors throughout academe. When I was 22, the history dept. advisor gave me a "What to do with a history degree" info sheet. The jobs listed were: local historian, teacher, professor, museum curator, journalist. Certainly nothing lucrative. Was this really the best career advice my university had to offer?

So I am not advocating LA majors to pursue low-paying jobs; quite the opposite, in fact.

Anonymous said...

Euclid was giving a lecture when a student asked what was the practical value of learning all this. Euclid then called up to the front of the room the then equivalent of his grad student / TA and said, 'Go give that student a coin, he wants to profit from his learning.'

I'm a mid-career prof at a backwater college who appreciates making a buck as much as the next person... given that I make bupkies now and was in my mid-30's before drawing something resembling a middle class salary.

But expecting the liberal arts to be the path to a materially easy life and / or come with some kind of built-in vocational training misses the point.

It would be nice if society better rewarded that sort of path, but it never will directly. And yes some liberal arts people do do well professionally, though my purely anecdotal sense is that only a small percentage and those who go on into para-professional life ever do that well financially.

I deeply care about what happens to my majors after they graduate. I advise them to double major in something practical, and have even scoured for jobs for a few. (Probably a far easier solution than expecting the schools to do it.)

But, in the end, careful study and an education in reading, writing, and reflective thinking is not about job training. I don't have the time even if I wanted to do it, and liberal arts programs are already under-resourced and increasingly crowded out by other programs to be fiddling around with practical training.

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