Office of External Affairs

August 28, 2018

From the VP – Do the liberal arts still matter? (HINT: they do!)

Randy Hodgins

I’ve been thinking a lot about college majors recently.  No, I’m not planning to go back to school for another degree (although the idea of being a Triple Dawg has some appeal).  No, I’m thinking about majors because my daughter is a sophomore this year at the UW and is in the process of trying to sort out her academic future for the next three years.

There’s been a lot of negative attention on four year degrees in the last couple of years, particularly bachelor’s degrees in the liberal arts which many feel do not lead directly to a good paying job.  Certainly universities nationwide have seen a slow migration away from the liberal arts for many years.  For example, in 1998, the top five undergraduate majors here on the UW Seattle campus were Business, Biology, Political Science, English and Sociology.  In 2017, the top five were Computer Science, Psychology, Business, Biochemistry and Electrical Engineering – a pretty good reflection of the significant changes that have occurred in the regional economy during this time.  In case our elected officials were wondering, many of our students seem to have gotten the “STEM” message.

But that does not mean that a liberal arts degree has no value and in fact, according to a recent survey commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, while the general public remains skeptical of their value, executives and hiring managers in the business community not only have confidence in universities and colleges, they value those skills that are generally taught as part of a liberal arts education.

The survey covered 500 private sector business executives and 500 managers whose duties included recruiting and hiring new employees.  More than 60% of those surveyed expressed a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in U.S. colleges and universities and between 75 and 80% of the same group who think completing a college education is very important or absolutely essential in today’s workplace.

More importantly, when it comes to skills necessary to succeed in today’s workplace, business executives and hiring managers value more generalized skills that aren’t specific to certain majors such as oral communication and critical thinking.  And while these skills are highly valued, less than 50% of the same group believe students are well prepared in this regard.

So, let’s hold off on the requiem for the liberal arts for the time being.  Sure, computer science and engineering are still going to be both popular with students and necessary given the direction of the economy.  But it seems that there is still a viable place in the workplace for the humanities.