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What to Do With a Liberal Arts Degree

A surprising number of students and parents still have misconceptions about what a liberal arts education really is, and whether it's worth pursuing.

"The first misperception is that a liberal arts education doesn't put you in a good position to get a job after college, and that is so not true," says Carol DelPropost, assistant vice-president for admission and financial aid at Ohio Wesleyan University.

"And some people think 'liberal' in terms of a political view -- as opposed to conservative -- and that's not at all what it means," she adds. "It means you're well-informed across many disciplines. Another misperception is that students cannot get a strong education in science."

It's true that the liberal arts are great preparation for students planning to attend graduate school. However, they are also good for students simply looking to further their education and equip themselves for future employment.

"In general, the liberal arts will not train a student for a specific field or specialty, but it will provide an education that enables a student to learn how to enter virtually any career field," says Paul Marthers, dean of admission at Reed College in Oregon.

He adds, "Specialized courses of study are great if the student knows exactly what he or she wants to do, and doesn't change his or her mind. But specialized majors can back a student into a corner, while liberal arts and science majors provide a more flexible path to professions and fields."

So what exactly is a liberal arts education?

It's a broad education that covers a wide variety of subjects, including the arts, foreign languages, humanities, social sciences, math, science and literature. It teaches critical thinking and communication skills. At many schools, digital and technical literacy is also part of a modern liberal arts curriculum.

Cheryl Brown, director of undergrad admissions at Binghamton University in New York state, says, "It's fabulous preparation. It teaches you how to write. It teaches you how to express yourself orally. It teaches you how to synthesize huge amounts of information and compile it in a way that's meaningful to you in your life. You learn history. You learn about other cultures. You take math and science."

The depth and breadth of study is designed to create well-rounded, critical thinkers able to succeed in nearly any type of work environment.

"This enables students to develop skills that will be useful no matter what they decide to do in the future," DelPropost says. "This is very important because most Americans will change careers several times in their lifetimes. Also, it's not even possible to project what kinds of careers there will be 20 years from now."

"Today's marketplace demands that employees have transferable skills -- abilities relevant to any industry," says Stephanie McCaine. She's the director of admissions at Purchase College, a public liberal arts college in New York state. "The workplace needs individuals who know how to think, learn and communicate effectively. A liberal arts education prepares students for this by actively engaging students in learning."

But what type of student is a good match for the liberal arts?

"Any student with a passion for learning and a desire to examine the world from multiple perspectives -- for example historical, philosophical, scientific, etc. -- is probably a student who should consider a liberal arts education," McCaine says. "Students with multiple areas of interest and the goal of carving out their own unique career paths are especially well-suited for a liberal arts education."

Chloe Vaast is a student at Providence College (PC), a liberal arts school in Rhode Island. She applied to several colleges and universities before enrolling at PC. "I originally applied to a lot of schools that were bigger than PC... because they offered both writing departments and international programs."

Initially her dual focus made it challenging to find a school that corresponded to both of her interests. "I got into [another college], but the more I looked into it the more I found out it was a more arts-oriented school, and I couldn't give up global studies and international relations."

Being a small liberal arts school with areas of study in both the arts and sciences, PC allowed Vaast to create her own curriculum. Beyond meeting the college's core requirements, she could create the balance she was looking for between writing and global studies.

Liberal arts is also a good option for students who, unlike Vaast, haven't narrowed down their interests or aspirations. "If they're unsure, it will help them discover what they feel passionate about, which can often lead to their deciding on a particular major or career," says DelPropost.

Since a liberal arts education doesn't focus on just one discipline, it is imperative that students take advantage of their school's career centers and internship programs. This way they will be able to combine their broad education with specific practical experience.

"Your first foray into the job market may be a little more difficult unless you've done a lot of internships and things to help provide an entrée into the workplace," Brown says.

"Because liberal arts colleges emphasize career preparation rather than career placement, their career centers offer extensive internship opportunities and often work to establish networks of alumni willing to help open a door for a recent graduate of the institution," Marthers says.

He adds that summer research opportunities and internships are available through most schools. "At Reed, just about every junior or senior majoring in the sciences or social sciences can find a summer research position on campus, or in Portland. And a number of departments provide funds to support off-campus internships or research in areas such as environmental studies, history, and literature and creative writing."

McCaine points out that students can build upon their coursework with study abroad programs and community work, as well as internships. Purchase is located just outside of New York City, giving students access to work experience at global and Fortune 500 companies.

Internships also supplement the wide variety of career options offered by a liberal arts education. They allow students to get a feel for various occupations prior to committing to a specific career.

"Regardless of where you think you're heading when you're 18 years old, it's difficult to really know," DelPropost says. "By not locking yourself into a very narrow path, by keeping your options open, you'll benefit much more from your entire college experience. You further develop as a person, rather than just an intellect, and you'll bring a lot more to whatever you do after college."

The path from education to career may be less obvious with the liberal arts, says Brown. However, she adds, "You know that 10 years down the road, liberal arts majors are making as much or more than people who graduate with degrees in the professions."


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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.