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Undervaluing the Liberal Arts in the Workplace is Detrimental to Everyone, Experts Say

October 2, 2013

It seems a difficult time to be a liberal arts major. Declining enrollments and budget woes have prompted many colleges to reduce funding to these programs, and some have cut them entirely. There are a number of theories about what is driving this liberal arts "crisis," but perceived lower earnings and jobs prospects when compared to their science or engineering peers is a popular one. Experts have long contended that this is not necessarily a fair assessment, and a new report from the salary-tracking firm PayScale suggests they might be right.

Last week PayScale published its annual ranking of typical earnings by major. As one might expect, engineering and technical fields landed eight of the top 10 positions; liberal arts did not make an appearance until "Government," which ranked 14th. This is likely no surprise to liberal arts majors who, according to The Huffington Post, are used to being told they will probably never earn as much as technology or business majors. Perhaps lost in all of this, however, is the fact that many liberal arts majors can still earn far more than most Americans. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the national average for all U.S. workers was $45,790 in 2012, but PayScale data shows that by mid-career, Government majors earn an average of $97,100. International relations major: $85,700. Advertising, philosophy and fashion majors earn in excess of $75,000, as do political science, linguistics and architecture graduates.

This data might suggest that public perception of liberal arts earnings is perhaps skewed, but Elizabeth Bookser Barkley, professor of English and chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at the Cincinnati-based College of Mount St. Joseph, said this is not the only thing it has gotten wrong. She said the media often undervalues the usefulness of the skills these graduates carry into the workforce, driving the misconception that they are not in demand.

"I'm growing a little weary of the pummeling of the liberal arts that has been occurring in some mainstream newspapers," Barkley told CityTownInfo, noting that these graduates know how to read and write clearly and think critically. "Anyone who can navigate the writings of Virginia Woolf or a Greek tragedy will have no trouble identifying the main points of a company's annual report."

Eddie LaMeire, EO LaMeire College Consulting, agrees that it may be a mistake to define the liberal arts in terms of their practicality. He told CityTownInfo that just as those who earn "great books" degrees need a practical career application for their skills, doctors and engineers need reading, writing and critical thinking skills to succeed.

"Where people have trouble is where they turn it into a zero-sum game where the liberal arts and 'practical knowledge' are seen as mutually exclusive. This hurts everyone," said LaMeire. "The baby gets thrown out with the bathwater when we speak about the liberal arts, which is a shame because they're actually necessary."

This is not to say that liberal arts majors would not benefit from a little more practical preparation for the job market. Barkley advises her students to diversify their skills where they can. "Take a wide variety of courses within your major and supplement them with work skills courses," she said, "[Like] courses in spreadsheet, photography, new media ethics, professional writing." She also recommends participating in a co-operative programs that develop work experience.

LaMeire said he also advises his clients to pick up internships, and to double major or minor in a practical field when they can. He notes, however, that students still need to choose majors with a mind for potential earnings and employability.

"No matter how much a university might pitch its Bachelor of Fine Arts in Bagpipes," said LaMeire, "the student needs to make sure that she's looking out for her best (practical) interests every step of the way."


Compiled by Aimee Hosler

Sources:

"2013 - 2014 PayScale College Salary Report," payscale.com

Interview with Eddie LaMeire, October, 1, 2013

Interview with Elizabeth Bookser Barkley, Ph.D., September 30, 2013

"Liberal Arts Majors That Pay You Back: PayScale Data," huffingtonpost.com, September 16, 2013, Tyler Kingkade

"May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates," bls.gov, May, 2012

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