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Why It’s Worth It to Study Liberal Arts – Even If You’re Going Into STEM

Topics: Career Advice
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As more tech companies hire workers without degrees, and career changers shift to coding jobs after completing non-degree bootcamps, it’s fair for the prospective college student to wonder if getting a degree is still worth it. For the time being, at least, the answer is yes — you’re still a more competitive candidate with a degree than without one. College graduates on average out-earn workers with a high school diploma, who make just 62 percent of their degree-holding peers’ earnings.

The real question is whether it’s worth it to study liberal arts — particularly if you’re pretty sure you’re setting your sights on a STEM career. Here’s why the answer is yes.

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1. It’s not an either/or choice.

STEM and humanities are often presented as a binary choice, as if students will have to pick one or the other when it comes time to choose a major. But many schools now offer interdisciplinary programs that combine both fields of study.

“I’d argue that STEM and humanities depend on one another,” wrote Havannah Tran at PayScale last year. “To put these fields in conversation is to promote innovation and better work.”

Tran, then just beginning her second year of college, presented her decision to focus her studies on both tech and liberal arts as a practical one.

“Jacks of all trades seem to be doing well in the workforce, as well,” she noted. “Whether these folks are tech CEOs exploring animation or curators utilizing 3D scanning technology to expand the museum-going experience, the overlap of humanities and technology has brought about novel and exciting experiences.”

2. Liberal arts + STEM = higher earnings.

STEM students who study liberal arts may also boost their earnings after graduation. PayScale’s College ROI Report, which ranks the best value colleges in the U.S., routinely ranks tiny Harvey Mudd College in the top five schools, beating out more famous institutions like Stanford and Princeton. Why? Perhaps because of Harvey Mudd’s focus — unique among STEM-focused schools — on liberal arts.

“…what is a liberal arts school? Well, it’s a school that makes you think, as well as learn,” writes a Harvey Mudd alum on the school’s blog. “Ideally, in a liberal arts school students learn how to think for themselves, how to ‘reflect critically on what you have heretofore just taken for granted’ and not just learn the formulas, but also ‘how a mathematician and a scientist thinks’. It’s not just about taking classes in multiple subjects. It’s about how those subjects are taught.”

3. New grads lack soft skills; liberal arts can help.

Critical thinking skills are the soft skills most lacking in new grads, according to hiring managers surveyed for PayScale’s report, How to Win in the Skills Economy; 60 percent of managers said that grads lacked those skills. A liberal arts education can help students fill that gap.

Liberal arts can help develop hard skills, too. Writing proficiency topped the list of hard skills that managers found lacking, at 44 percent. A STEM-only education isn’t likely to focus on writing as much as programming languages, for example — but learning how to describe your projects in human language can be just as important.

At the end of the day, the most successful students are often the ones who’ve made time for both STEM and humanities.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you think it’s still worth it to study liberal arts, in addition to or instead of STEM? We want to hear from you. Tell us your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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Your email about college ROI links me instead to this article. Whoopsies!!


The central argument of this article seems anecdotally true; but of the examples provided, Stanford and Princeton are also top-tier research universities with an undergraduate focus on the liberal arts, and Harvey Mudd is actually the most STEM-focussed of the three (offering only STEM degrees). It’s absolutely true that the skills acquired in a liberal arts education will benefit scientists, who ultimately spend most of their time writing papers and grant proposals. However (as much as I’d like it to… Read more »

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