Liberal arts, humanities degrees sustain value even as marketplace shifts

Author: Vanessa Miller


Many freshmen come to college conflicted about their academic-career aspirations.

Not Lauren Sutkus. The Chicagoland native knew what she wanted to pursue.

“I always wanted to do art,” Sutkus, 20, said. “But my parents weren’t for it.”

So she enrolled at the University of Iowa in fall 2015 as a communications major. And was uninspired. After her first semester, Sutkus told her mom, “I’m coming home.”

“I don’t want to be here if I’m not doing what I want,” she said.

The ultimatum drew a concession from her mom: “Fine, you can do art.”

“So I did it,” Sutkus said earlier this week, stepping away from an art class that — on that particular day — involved bananas as sculpting models. “And I love it.”

Sutkus said she’s not worried about her employability after graduation. Because although she has clear aspirations to teach art at the secondary level — and a dream of opening her own art school — Sutkus said she feels well-rounded.

“I do think there are plenty of careers,” she said. “If you’re doing what you love, you’ll find a way to make money.”

Academic experts agree with her — even as careers are burgeoning across the technology, engineering and agriculture sectors, for example.

Some, like Sutkus’s parents, remain wary of the sustained value of a degree in the humanities, or more broadly, liberal arts. But many in the field insist the degrees remain valuable in this ever-morphing global marketplace — in large part — because they produce well-rounded graduates.

Equipped with broad communication, leadership and thinking skills, those students also increasingly are thinking outside the box — pairing a humanities major with a technical specialty, and planning for a diverse and well-rounded career across several fields.

“Behind this is the insight that people are going to have multiple jobs in the future,” said Steve McGuire, director of the UI School of Art and Art History. “You are not going to start one job and then 35 years later retire from that job.”

Everyone’s an entrepreneur of sorts, he said, even those not seeking to start businesses.

“You are going to have a kind of entrepreneurial disposition,” McGuire said. “You are an agent. You put together a skill set that is diversely applicable. Students are thinking right now what combination of skill sets will enable me to be a top earner.”


Sometimes those skill sets land liberal arts and humanities majors in the fields of their training. Sometimes they don’t, according to McGuire. Many are OK with — even hoping for — a broader range of options.

“The jobs exist, but there is a hybridization going on across just about every discipline,” McGuire said, citing a recent conversation he had with art history graduate students. “The joke was …, ‘What do you do with a Ph.D. in art history?’ Of course, what they’ve discovered is, there’s a lot.”

Humanities and, more generally, liberal arts majors often end up with higher lifetime earnings than specifically trained employees — according to field experts and recent research — thanks to their well-rounded background and academic foundation.

And students increasingly are becoming aware of the value of diversity, McGuire said, explaining why more in pursuit of a humanities discipline are mixing in digital and engineering skills.

“Right now, knowing how to model in 3D is almost becoming a requisite tool for people in art and I would even suggest the humanities,” he said. “Humanities students and art students are required now to use the tools of technology to enhance their career opportunities.”

A decade ago, according to McGuire, about 10 percent of the university’s nearly 700 undergraduate art majors were double majoring in another field. Today, that percent has jumped to more than 70 percent, he said.

Engineering is among a popular art-major pairing, McGuire said.

“Science and art is very very common,” he said.

Sammi Wu, a 22-year-old international UI student, said she’s pursuing a career in marketing and advertising via a double major in communications and graphic design. She arrived at that decision by way of recognition that humanities jobs can be hard to find.

“I have to admit that,” she said, citing her hope the double major and technical skills will make her more marketable.

“I’m majoring in hopes I’ll be the kind of person a future employer will want,” she said.

‘I’m not limited to one field’

Although Wu has a vague sense of what she’d like to do, she remains somewhat open. She’s flexible. And some analysts say liberal arts and humanities degrees can be ideal for those without specific career ambitions.

Take Susannah McInally. Lacking clear direction in career ambitions but a solid sense of her interests, she pursued a degree in psychology — a popular major on liberal arts campuses.

After graduating from Drake University in 2015 with only a vague sense of what she wanted to do for a living, McInally tossed her job-seeking net wide — landing as an admissions counselor in West Virginia.

That wasn’t an ideal fit, bringing McInally back to Iowa — where she interviewed and was hired for a post at a financial firm in West Des Moines.

The now 24-year-old spends her days working with claims that have gone into foreclosure — tasks that generally have little to do with psychology. But McInally reports her liberal arts degree has served her well — equipping her with communication, writing and interviewing skills.

“It’s something I think helped me grow a lot as a person,” she said. “And, as someone who doesn’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life, I like the idea that I’m not limited to one field.”

Her dad, Coe College President David McInally, also extols the virtues of a broad liberal arts and sciences education. Regardless of major — from those in the humanities, such as literature, art, music, philosophy and religion, to social sciences such as psychology — broadly educated students historically succeed in careers across the workforce spectrum, including in the judicial or governing systems.

“The communities and organizations that founded our institutions believed that a broad liberal education was essential preparation for self-governance in a participatory democracy,” President McInally told The Gazette. “They recognized how important it was for our leaders to be able to think critically, evaluate evidence, communicate effectively with all people, and bring knowledge from a variety of disciplines (including quantitative reasoning, appreciation for the arts, knowledge of history, politics, economics, and more) to the problems that face our society.”

That is not to say everyone must to stick to the liberal arts track, McInally said. But, he noted, “it is affirmation that the greater the exposure to liberal education for society as a whole, the more well-equipped we will be to self-govern in a democratic system.”

Museums won’t be at the career fair

And yet, some liberal arts or humanities majors remain focused on a specific pursuit — say, as a museum curator, dancer, theater stagehand or professional musician.

Zach Cervenka, 24, for example, is majoring in art history, with an emphasis in Japanese art history, and drawing and painting. His hope is to pursue more education — involving international travel and work-study pursuits. He eventually would like to work at a museum. Or make it as a practicing artist.

“I just feel like humanities will land you somewhere,” he said.

Career counselors and academics say finding a job in the humanities might require more patience than, for example, a job in marketing, finance or information technology, justifying student and parent skepticism about the value of those degrees.

That’s why Lynne Sebille-White, senior director of career advancement for the UI Pomerantz Career Center, urges students to test the career waters early, think about job prospects often, and get involved.

“Museums aren’t going to be at the fall career fair — they’re not going to be there the same way an accounting firm would be there, with a huge number of spots,” she said. “It’s more networking, getting in through volunteering.”

Colleges shift student support

The shift in workforce and employer demands have prompted change not only among student pursuits but in the way area colleges and universities serve them.

At Coe College, for example, a new Center for Creativity and Careers emphasizes networking and a post-graduation mind-set. Among the center’s tools are connections between students and area alumni, career-centered events and programming, and experiential learning opportunities centered on 21st century skills.

At the UI Pomerantz Career center, advisers have stopped meeting with students based on major and instead schedule them for appointments based on 10 different career areas of interest.

The meetings do not represent commitments. A student could meet with health and wellness advisers one week and the counseling division the next.

But they are meant to prepare students of all majors to open their minds to a range of career possibilities.

“We are just trying to get students from the get-go to start thinking ahead,” Sebille-White said.

Published Date: 
September, 2017