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Well-Rounded Liberal Arts Education vs. Job Skills: Do You Have to Choose?

Apr 27, 2012 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 1 Comments

Rick Santorum has been vocal in the news* about his disdain for higher education—calling colleges “indoctrination centers” that promote a certain political and religious (or should we say nonreligious?) worldview. With tuition rising and student debt growing in a difficult economy where students can’t afford these financial burdens, it’s becoming more and more common to question the value of a traditional liberal arts education.

Academics may claim that such an education is not intended purely as a gateway to a good job. But students who don’t land the jobs they want sometimes question why they paid all that money—and it’s a fair question.

Typically, people who pursue online job training courses are people who know exactly what they need. These are often adult students who are returning to school for strongly practical reasons—because they need a degree to land a new job or get a promotion, for example.


Adding another element into degree programs would likely make college and trade schools more expensive, not less—something that may not be politically popular in today’s economic climate.



Often, more vocationally-based programs take less time to go through—for example, Associate of Applied Science degrees that take only two years to earn. This is a plus for students who are there for more practical reasons, as it reduces the time they must spend out of the workforce and reduces costs as well. However, some more practical degrees, such as online medical degrees, can take many years to earn and cost a great deal. Even so, the students enrolled in these degree programs are there for a very focused area of study—they aren’t there to broaden their knowledge in a specific field. 

A traditional liberal arts education is designed to be a bit different. The regional accreditation agencies that accredit most colleges throughout the US look for a broad, well-rounded education that introduces students to the sciences, the humanities, and the arts—regardless of which course of study they ultimately pursue. The point of this type of education is to give students a broad understanding of many facets of the world around them—and then, through learning and exploration, choose a field they’re passionate about and learn more about it for its own sake.

But the world doesn’t seem to see the traditional liberal arts degree the same way it’s viewed in academics. To many in the wider employment world, a online Bachelor’s degree is a minimum prerequisite for an entry-level job. It’s used as the basic credential for employment in many fields—and when a student with a humanities degree can’t find a job in his or her field, the degree program itself is sometimes blamed.

But do we really have to choose between job skills and a more well-rounded education? Students in fields such as the hard sciences or economics will likely not be held back by their majors. But all students could benefit from a practical course of study that teaches them how they might apply their degree in the real world—which careers they might be best suited for, and what entrepreneurial opportunities there may be for people with their passions. And those in more hands-on, trade-based programs would doubtless benefit from a more well-rounded education in addition to the practical skills they need.

Adding another element into degree programs would likely make college and trade schools more expensive, not less—something that may not be politically popular in today’s economic climate. However, students do need both a practical education and a solid grounding in culture and science as provided by the liberal arts.



Rishona Campbell Over a year ago

My undergraduate degree is in liberal arts. Perhaps I don't have a personal success story (I'm currently underemployed); however I will say from working in a variety of professional fields, even a "technical" education cannot fully prepare you for the workplace. The traits that seem to lead to success is the ability to communicate, negotiate and continue to learn. Yes, skills are very important; but they form a foundation and many times you can acquire those skills outside of the classroom. The exception would be any type of career where you need specific education for professional licensing requirements. For example, two software engineers who work at my company are liberal arts graduates. Many high paying positions in the real estate, insurance and public sector do not require a specific degree. The bigger challenge with liberal arts degrees (and I think this is where colleges can help out their students a little more) is finding and channeling the value of the education earned.

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