The Endurance of the Liberal Arts

By Caitlyn Ewers

As universities across the country open for fall term, undergraduates yet to declare their majors are facing what will be, for some, the most difficult and defining decision of their academic career. According to the Princeton Review, the current list of top undergraduate majors consists largely of pre-professional and career-ready tracks such as business, nursing, economics, computer science, and chemical engineering. Many students, pressured by the ever-increasing cost of higher education, looming student loan payments, and uncertain postgraduate career prospects, will select one of these majors for themselves regardless of their attraction to the subject material and to the postgraduate opportunities the field is likely to offer them. 

In the current educational climate, the liberal arts and the humanities in particular are suffering. Declining enrollment at two private liberal arts universities, Sweet Briar College in Virginia and Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga, was so severe that both announced this past spring that they would be forced to close their doors. Sweet Briar has been saved, at least for the time being, by a settlement agreement calling for the election of new administration and millions of dollars in alumnae donations; Tennessee Temple merged with Piedmont International University in Winston-Salem, South Carolina. Other liberal arts colleges across America are faring better, but dwindling numbers of students majoring within humanities departments demonstrate that they too are struggling to maintain their long traditions of liberal arts education. 

Although the primary tenet of Phi Beta Kappa is the value of scholarship within the liberal arts and sciences, the perceived attitude toward degrees outside of pre-professional fields would make the future of such studies seem bleak indeed. With the postgraduate job market continuing to lag behind expectations of fresh-faced college graduates, a degree in literature, natural science, or art history—while the student may well have a true passion for the field—seems not only ill-advised, but downright dangerous and even wasteful, considering the substantial investment of tuition costs. 

Despite this line of thinking, however, much of the available evidence indicates that liberal arts degrees are actually quite valuable, both to the students who worked painstakingly to earn them and to employers looking to hire personnel with advanced, applied skills in critical thinking, written and oral communication, and creative problem solving. 

Even industries which would seem most suitable to college graduates with focused, career-track degrees are hiring liberal arts majors: the CEO of Deutsch NY, the New York branch of a national advertising agency, and the Vice President  of Charles River Associates, a Boston-based litigation consulting firm serving the technology and financial services industries, have both recently been quoted as finding graduates from liberal arts universities among their most valuable hires. 

While a marketing major may seem better suited to a career in advertising, or a graduate from a legal studies program may seem a better fit for a litigation firm, science and humanities majors have a unique set of skills which sets them apart. Upper management of these two companies cited the ability to critically evaluate information and the “intellectual curiosity” of liberally educated men and women as reasons why they seek to hire—in the case of Charles River Associates, “almost exclusively”—from liberal arts programs. Exposure to various fields encourages flexibility and well-roundedness, and selecting one or two particular subjects in which to pursue deeper study demonstrates dedication, motivation, and enthusiasm for scholarship. 

These qualities translate extremely well to the workplace, and are as important to the life of the professional as they are to the life of the mind, an ideal which Phi Beta Kappa endeavors to support. 

Caitlyn Ewers is a senior at Creighton University majoring in Latin and art history. Creighton University is home to the Beta of Nebraska Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.