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Increasing the Value of a College Degree: Promoting the Practical Value of Liberal Arts

Adobe image - June 4, 2024
The value of studying liberal arts has been questioned, especially given the price of higher education, but the liberal arts have high applicability in the professional world—and institutions need to communicate that.

If higher education struggles with conveying the value of the liberal arts, then it will struggle with communicating the value of a college degree. After all, the liberal arts can represent at least 25% of the college degree. This finding is highly concerning because only 36% of Americans expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. Therefore, institutions must communicate the connection between the liberal arts and the real world to boost public confidence. 

This liberal arts criticism stems from the perceived lack of direct career applicability and ROI. However, this perspective fails to fully appreciate the inherent value that the liberal arts provide. Without a deep appreciation for the complexities of human experiences, our world would struggle with innovation, competitiveness and meeting people’s fundamental needs and desires. 

It is no secret that employers seek students with skills that come from the liberal arts. The liberal arts provide critical thinking, analytical reasoning, communication skills and broad knowledge that leads certain employers to prioritize hiring graduates with a liberal arts degree. The key is to generate interest and build value among diverse student populations. 

One question I always pose to students is, “Would media giants, online streaming companies, e-commerce businesses and social media companies exist without the liberal arts?” It opens a discussion into how their business models may not be successful if it weren’t for their knowledge of human nature. The very behaviors and desires that drive the success of connecting with consumers are rooted in the study of human nature. And where can you learn about human nature? It can be found in studying the liberal arts. 

If you’re trying to engage with the younger generations, a recommendation is to connect the liberal arts with pop culture. For instance, ask students if they follow social media influencers or brands online. Ask them why they believe certain content goes viral while other content falls flat. This is a key step to get them engaged and drive their curiosity. Then simply state that they can find those answers in the liberal arts. 

Another suggestion is to ask them what TV shows they binge-watch. Binge-watching satisfies a fundamental human need for escapism. This element is intrinsic to the liberal arts. By engaging with captivating narratives and characters, audiences are in essence engaging with the underlying principles of the liberal arts. 

Digital natives are also increasingly drawn to careers as social influencers and personal brand managers. The pursuit of social media stardom and personal branding is fueled by a desire to connect with others, build a following and exert influence. But to truly succeed in this realm, one must possess a nuanced understanding of human psychology, communication and the complexities of social interaction. These are precisely the areas of study in which the liberal arts are founded. 

If you’re trying to recruit the adult population, universities may want to communicate how the liberal arts help with career transitions. Adult learners may seek to move into a different position, company or industry. The ability to adapt and transition becomes increasingly important. The liberal arts help students become responsive to career transitions. Thus, a recommendation is to say, “Thinking of a career change?” Don’t be limited to one pathway. Study the liberal arts.” 

It’s important to stress adaptability and agility, that adult learners can pivot in their careers because they understand human nature. Contrary to common criticism, the liberal arts help students develop the skills and mindset to take on various career paths. The broad, interdisciplinary nature of a liberal arts education equips graduates with a diverse skillset they can apply across multiple industries. 

In essence, the practical value of the liberal arts is literally everywhere. It applies to almost every organization and profession. Whether you aspire to be a politician, a business leader or a social impact innovator, understanding human nature is the key to success. If you want to be a politician, you need to learn how to fundraise. If you want to fundraise, you need to understand what motivates people to donate. This knowledge is invaluable for e-commerce businesses, which must constantly adapt to the evolving preferences and behaviors of their customers. Companies have become giants because their understanding of human nature led them to captivate audiences worldwide. 

At the heart of the liberal arts lies a deep exploration of the human condition. It helps students develop knowledge about how people think, feel and behave. The liberal arts inform us about universal themes such as love, loss, fear, aspirations, triumph and redemption that shape our lives. By studying the liberal arts, students can help create strategies, content, products, etc., that resonate on a deeper level. It gives them tools to leverage the power of human emotion and connection. 

Imagine if recent graduates spoke about human nature during job interviews. They articulate a robust understanding of the human condition, which is at the core of the liberal arts, to drive innovation and maintain a competitive edge. They explain how this knowledge helps create solutions that resonate with people. Their intelligence becomes prominent. It reflects how students can integrate a third dimension into the conversation—critical thinking. It also can boost an institution’s academic brand reputation based on the type of graduates produced. 

By strategically demonstrating the real-world relevance and applicability of a liberal arts education, we can press the hot buttons for younger generations and adult learners. We can also increase the value of the liberal arts and ultimately the college degree. The key is to strike a balance, continuing to uphold the core tenets of a well-rounded liberal arts education while adapting the messaging and marketing to resonate with students’ interests and aspirations. This dual approach can help universities reposition the liberal arts as an essential foundation for career success. 

Before deciding to reduce the liberal arts, universities may want to reflect on how it would impact the things societies truly enjoy such as binge-watching shows, using social media and receiving instant gratification from online shopping. There is great value in deeply appreciating how the liberal arts challenges us and drive innovation. Rather than treating the liberal arts as a mere academic hodgepodge, we should recognize that the liberal arts increase the college degree’s value when we effectively unlock and market the secrets of human nature and its real-world applicability to truly resonate with students.