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What Employers Want: Dispelling Myths about the Value of the Liberal Arts

From the college wage premium to the average rate of return for a bachelor’s degree—which economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York put at 75 percent and 14 percent, respectively—the economic benefits of a college education are well documented. Simply stated, college completion boosts individual employability and earnings, which, in turn, has a positive aggregate impact on the national, state, and local economies.

In the popular imagination, however, fed on the myth of the English major barista and other equally dubious cautionary tales of un- or underemployed college graduates, there is an exception: the liberal arts. AAC&U addressed concerns about employment outcomes for liberal arts majors directly in a report showing that liberal arts majors “close earnings gaps with those who hold baccalaureate degrees in professional and preprofessional fields” and also “are likely to do as well” in terms of salary.

Yet bias against the liberal arts, as well as the underlying assumption that the ROI of a college degree is determined solely by the student’s choice of major, continues to influence public policy. The most recent example comes from Florida, where currently pending legislation would cut in half the amount of state financial aid available to students who choose a major not deemed to lead directly to employment. As noted in the local press coverage, the bill takes direct aim at liberal arts majors. (And notably, because it uses financial aid as the policy instrument, the legislation has profound equity implications.) 

Even setting aside data related to employment outcomes, public policy efforts intended to disincentivize majoring in the liberal arts are rooted in a false assumption about the jobs college graduates actually hold. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that only “about 27 percent of undergraduate degree holders are working in a job that is directly related to their college major.” More importantly, however, such policy efforts are at variance with the workforce needs identified by employers themselves.

AAC&U has conducted regular research on employer priorities for college learning since 2006. A consistent finding across all of our employer surveys and focus groups is that the field-specific knowledge and skills developed through the major are not what employers value most in new hires and are not what employers view as most critical to an employee’s prospects for career advancement and promotion. Instead, we have found that employers overwhelmingly view the knowledge and skills developed across the entire educational experience, including through broad study in the liberal arts, to be most important for career success.

For our most recent report, which will be released later this month, we surveyed executives and hiring managers responsible for making hiring and promotion decisions across a range of industries and at companies and organizations of various types and sizes. Consistent with all our previous research, this latest survey found that a majority of employers view the learning outcomes that define a contemporary liberal education—which, again, includes broad study in the liberal arts—to be “very important” for success in the workforce. More than nine in ten employers regard them as either “somewhat important” or “very important.”

The most highly valued learning outcomes include a wide range of skills and competencies that are necessarily developed across the entire educational experience—including all undergraduate majors—such as critical and creative thinking, complex problem-solving, digital literacy, and ethical reasoning as well as the ability to communicate effectively, work in teams, analyze and interpret data, and communicate and work with people from different cultural backgrounds. 

Indeed, AAC&U’s employer research has conclusively demonstrated that public policies intended either to disincentivize study in the liberal arts or to promote disinvestment in the humanities, arts, and social sciences are misguided. Ultimately, they have the effect of undermining student job prospects and career success, while making it more difficult for higher education to meet workforce needs. Equally important, at a time when educating for democracy is more critical than ever, efforts that isolate and privilege higher education’s short-term economic benefits, while ignoring its broader civic, democratic, and cultural aims and purposes, further erode the concept of higher education as a public good—a principle at the very heart of the American dream.

Lynn Pasquerella is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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