From where I sit, it feels like the study of the liberal arts and the culmination of that education—the liberal arts and sciences degrees—are being challenged like never before. State governors, top business executives, and parents are questioning the end products that come from liberal arts institutions. In a recent Washington Post article, a managing director of a major financial management company complained that a liberal arts education mainly created “incredibly interesting, well-rounded cocktail party guests” but not graduates who are likely to find jobs.
Unfortunately, I think that a too-narrow focus on first jobs for graduates has these folks missing the bigger point—liberal arts institutions educate for employment, but they also educate for success. That’s the “plus” in our system, our game changer, and I will come back to that later.
I must say that the frustration of critics is completely understandable: unemployment rates remain high, and college education, already shockingly expensive, is growing ever more so. Students are graduating with unprecedented debt. People are concerned about the value—the return on investment of a college degree. It’s no surprise to me when high school students and their parents approach our admissions counselors asking, “So, what kind of job will Susie be able to get with her bachelor of arts degree?” or more pointedly, “Do you offer STEM education?”
Without question, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is the new buzzword for those anxious about post-graduation employment. These are all disciplines in which America must excel if it is to retain its industrial and economic strength. In his February 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama urged that we double-down on science and technology education starting in our secondary schools. To give the argument even more traction, some would widen the list of STEM professions to include educators, technicians, managers, social scientists, and health care professionals. Indeed, the talk these days in my state of Virginia is about STEM-H (for healthcare).
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the STEM job sector is growing at twice the rate of non-STEM occupations, but we should note some caveats. First, let’s remember that STEM workers, as identified by the Commerce Department, comprise only 5.5% of the workforce. Second, while STEM workers overall may earn 26% more than their counterparts, the greatest differential is seen in the lowest-level jobs; the higher the terminal degree, the less the earnings difference.
Moreover, it is not a given that the only path to STEM job success is to obtain a STEM degree.
- About one-third of college-educated workers in STEM professions do not hold degrees in STEM.
- Two-thirds of people holding STEM undergraduate degrees work in non-STEM jobs.
- One-fifth of math majors, for instance, end up working in education. (That is a good thing, I would argue.)
- Nearly 40% of STEM managers hold non-STEM degrees.