Investment of a Lifetime

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There has never been a more relevant time to declare the value of a liberal arts education.

Never has a liberal arts education been so relevant. Yet the value of the liberal arts is continuously and publicly called into question, as we increasingly demand proof of “return on investment.”

In an age of click-bait headlines and sweeping assertions by those who should know better, we are bombarded with cries that economic success can only be achieved through the pursuit of professional programs, rather than the liberal arts. Anxious parents are counseling their children to eschew the liberal arts in favor of vocational training because job prospects are seemingly so grim. Political leaders wrongly claim that welders make more money than philosophers, and hysterical headlines announce that a liberal arts degree is a ticket to a life of perennial unhappiness and penury.

But, as any liberal arts graduate can tell you, research and analysis—those fundamental liberal arts skills—reveal a very different story.

Our students at Davidson recognize that the liberal arts are, in fact, critical to success in every economic sector and provide an essential foundation applicable to every professional field. Those who study English, political science, history—and yes, philosophy—are hugely successful in business and government, and across all fields of science and technology. A thriving professional career today demands critical thinking, collaborative teamwork, innovative problem-solving, cultural literacy, sensitivity to demographic, economic and societal differences and political perspectives, and above all, clear communication. These are the skills specifically associated with a liberal arts education. Just ask the one-third of Fortune 500 CEOs with liberal arts degrees.

What’s more, in today’s constantly-changing global and technology-based landscape, the millennial generation will change jobs or careers at least nine times in their lifetime. Liberal arts majors are the most adaptable to these new circumstances; thriving in a world that demands flexibility and life-long learning. A liberal arts degree prepares students for the roles that have yet to be invented; not for one thing, but for anything. Innovative solutions, agility, creativity and entrepreneurship—these are the traits developed and honed for today’s world by a 21st century liberal arts education.

But what about their earning potential? For a generation with mounting college debt, and anxious parents worried about how they’ll pay it off, what’s the return on investment for the liberal arts graduate?

Graduates of professional programs may initially have slightly more earning power in their first job than those from liberal arts majors, but over their lifetime earnings, political science and history majors, for example, out-earn their counterparts who chose business management or accounting. And the claim that vocational training will yield higher earning power than the much-maligned philosophy major? Handily debunked by a comparative literature graduate… writing for Forbes.

Liberal arts graduates earn more than professional majors by their peak earnings age. Just ask Kenneth Chenault, CEO of AMEX, Alexa Hirshfeld, Founder of Paperless Post, or indeed, Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack… philosophy major.

In the end, earning power is just one measure of return on investment in a college degree. Liberal arts degrees aren’t just preparing students for their first job, but for a lifetime of career success.

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About Author

Jeanne-Marie Ryan

Executive Director of the Center for Career Development, Twitter: @JeannemarieRyan

1 Comment

  1. Tony Cogavin on

    Having started out with a BA double major in philosophy, I can attest to the value of a liberal arts degree in preparing you various roles and challenges in a career. Great insights here.