The Corner

Are Liberal-Arts Majors Just Wasting Time and Money?

Increasingly, American students are going for degrees that are likely to lead to good jobs, such as STEM, accounting, nursing, and so on. They’re shunning the liberal arts, which are likely to cause recruiters to look askance, or at least prefer applicants who seem more ready to “hit the ground running.”

A new book by Randall Stross, A Practical Education, takes issue with that view. He argues that liberal-arts majors can make excellent employees. He was a history major himself, and now is a professor of business at San Jose State. To make his case, he interviewed a number of recent Stanford liberal-arts grads, all of whom have done just fine in the techy climate of Silicon Valley.

In his view, studying the liberal arts hones important skills that employers need — reading, communications, reasoning — and the business world should stop looking down on them. He hopes to “nudge” it with his book.

In my Martin Center essay, I take a skeptical view. Sure, some liberal-arts grads do make excellent employees, but most of them aren’t cut from the same cloth as Stanford students. The sharp and ambitious Stanford grads Stross focuses on probably would have been good employees no matter where they went to college, or didn’t go at all.Their Stanford pedigree signals that they are exceptional. But what about liberal-arts majors who have gone to non-prestigious schools? Their degree probably signals that they didn’t want to work hard enough to get through a demanding program.

I don’t think anything will change until colleges stop letting students in the liberal arts coast along to their degrees whether they learn much or not. STEM and occupational degrees will remain preferred because they signal at least a fair degree of discipline and academic rigor.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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