Industry Insights
2023-02-21T19:34:16+00:00March 15, 2018|

Unlocking the Value of Liberal Arts Degrees

Colleges say they’re not in the business of training students for their first jobs but for a lifetime of learning and success. Yet, as pointed out by Matthew Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass, “A poor first job can mean a lifetime of lagging behind.”

Sigelman participated in a February 2018 panel-led discussion on the liberal arts and the divide between education and employment. Other panelists at the event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) included AEI Visiting Scholar Mark Schneider, Davidson College President Carol Quillen, former chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago Cheryl Hyman, and Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Monty E. Sullivan.

Aligning liberal arts and the workforce, however, are trends in hiring for the very skills that liberal arts graduates are known for: critical thinking, writing, numeracy, etc. A review of job postings for software engineers and the skills required shows that communications and writing skills are almost always included.[1] Indeed, being prepared for a lifetime of learning will be critical as workforce needs are expected to evolve rapidly and several times during a worker’s career.[2]

ManpowerGroup chairman and CEO Jonas Prising said in a 2017 press release: “In this Skills Revolution, learnability—the desire and ability to learn new skills to stay relevant and remain employable—will be the great equalizer.” In other words, because workforce skills are expected to keep evolving, employers may need to offer continual training as new job requirements emerge over the next 5, 10 or 20 years.

It would seem, then, that what the liberal arts teach regarding resiliency, examination of a topic, and “learning how to learn” will continue to be relevant.


Not all hiring managers know that statistics might be common to an economics degree—or how much is enough to meet their needs. Do graduates know to call out their special skills, or how?


So, if skills that are associated with liberal arts studies are still valued, what can be done to help unlock that value? According to Sigelman, commenting during the AEI panel discussion, 35 percent of the skills requested in job postings are foundational skills— even among seemingly unrelated fields (such as STEM jobs).

Whether liberal arts degrees have retained the power to signal employers as they have in the past is up for debate. Whereas hiring managers used to see a liberal arts degree as a reliable signal of a candidate’s skills, accomplishments, and likelihood of fit for a role, a number of variables have begun to cloud that transmission.

One problem is that the skills that now drive productivity are highly specific—more so than in past decades. Among the most highly demanded skills, according to Sigelman, are those associated with social media, analytics and statistics.

Employers don’t necessarily need people who have a full degree in those areas, but experience, certifications, and badges do catch their attention. A degree plus a certificate in one of those areas not only makes a candidate more attractive, but often generates $5,000–20,000 more per year in salary than a degree alone.

But what about the liberal arts degrees that DO include social media, statistics or analytics, but are otherwise named? What about the English degree that includes a segment on social media? Or the economics degree that includes segments on statistics? Not all hiring managers know that statistics might be common to an economics degree—or how much is enough to meet their needs. Do graduates know to call out their special skills, or how?

A Gallup study on the state of higher education in 2017 indicated that students are not getting the counseling and advising that they need in order to make satisfying choices regarding their choice of degree, nor in how to market themselves.

Summing up insights shared by AEI discussion moderator Jeff Selingo, there is a need to increase student awareness of opportunities, how to pursue them, which specific skills are needed and how to signal them.

In support of that statement, a Gallup/Strada Education Network study found that only 20 percent of college attendees received advice about their field of study from work-based sources. Yet, college attendees rate work-based sources as the most helpful—and those who received work-based advice are the least likely to say they would have chosen a different major.

Gallup also found that “Among recent graduates, almost half (47 percent) of those who are in jobs completely related to their undergraduate studies strongly agree that their education was worth the cost, compared with 29 percent of those in jobs where the work is not at all related to their undergraduate studies.”

Noting that student populations are decreasing and that U.S. higher ed enrollment may have peaked, Brandon Busteed, Gallup’s executive director of education and workforce development, is credited with having concluded that rather than singularly focusing on increasing enrollment, perhaps higher ed would do better to help students successfully transition from college to the workforce.

Gallup shares that: “Across all majors, recent college graduates who had a relevant job or internship as an undergraduate were twice as likely to have a good job waiting for them upon graduation” and recommends that “[h]igher education institutions can demonstrate their value to consumers by increasing their alignment with the workforce.”

Sigelman offered the following insights, generated by Burning Glass data: “All liberal arts degrees are south of the average regarding unemployment and earnings. All need some augmentation. But no matter what choices [a student] makes, you aren’t signing a death warrant.”

He continued that there are many opportunities regardless of what type of degree a person has and many can be well earning. Required, however, is that students be aware of the opportunities, understand how to pursue them, and have insights into what skills are needed (either within a degree or in addition to a degree).

[1] Burning Glass Technologies’ Program Insight™ Real-time Program Information Tool