Office of External Affairs

September 27, 2019

From the VP- What do Governor Jay Inslee, Seattle Metro Chamber CEO Marilyn Strickland and Microsoft’s Brad Smith have in Common? A Liberal Arts Degree!

Randy Hodgins

Steve Jobs once said, “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” The Apple Macintosh and iPhone sold millions not just because they had impressive processing power. They also looked and felt cool thanks to their sleek design and clever marketing. When revolutionizing an industry, it turns out employers need engineers as well as poets and artists.

Now let me be clear. The UW is very bullish about increasing opportunities in STEM because we clearly don’t have enough room to accommodate all the students who want to earn degrees in these fields. Our state legislature has recently been very supportive of providing additional funding to expand enrollments in computer science and engineering because of how important it is to our state economy.

Since the end of the Great Recession, however, there has been a lot of anxiety about the benefit of any college degree, but particularly those degrees that don’t immediately lead to a high-paying job. With tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon and Google in our backyard, students, parents and employers are urging the UW to expand opportunities to earn degrees that will lead to high wage employment in STEM fields.

But what about those students who have a passion for history, literature, music, economics or communications? Are they doomed to a lifetime of low wage employment because they are simply not interested in pursuing degrees in engineering, computer science or business?  A recent NY Times article titled “In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure” should give liberal arts students (and their skeptical parents) some hope for the future.  The article challenges the conventional wisdom that STEM majors are more financially successful in their careers than liberal arts majors. In looking at first jobs after university, the financial differences are significant. STEM grads earn more than their liberal arts counterparts. However, their initial advantage fades steadily. By age 40, humanities majors appear to catch up!

With the economy changing so rapidly over the past few decades, we often tell our students that they won’t have 3-4 jobs in their lifetime – they will have 3-4 careers and one or two of those careers haven’t been invented yet! As Tom Friedman wrote in his landmark book “The World is Flat” “in an age when parts or all of many jobs are constantly going to be exposed to digitization, automation, and outsourcing…it is not only what you know, but how you learn that will set you apart. Because what you know today will be out-of-date sooner than you think.

A liberal arts education is intended to expand the capacity of one’s mind to think critically and analyze information effectively. It develops and strengthens the brain to think within and across all disciplines; a skill that serves over a lifetime. In the future, liberal arts degree might prove to be a strong background for workers trying to adapt to an ever-changing economy.