The Business Case for a Liberal Arts Education

Given that some employers are struggling to find qualified workers, it is no surprise that parents and legislators are frustrated with liberal arts programs that prioritize cultivating general intellectual ability over developing employable skills. However, for students looking to find success in the world of business, the case for taking courses in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences is as strong as ever before. Taking liberal arts courses to either complete major requirements or supplement more “practical” degree programs will empower students to develop relevant skills, establish a competitive advantage in the job market, and follow in the footsteps of powerful business leaders.

In 2014, 74% of employers surveyed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems indicated that coursework in a variety of fields designed to cultivate general intellectual ability was “the best way to prepare for success in the global economy.” These employers argue that general coursework in fields such as philosophy, history, and mathematics teaches students to “think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems,” three skills that are crucial for continued professional success in the modern world. Ironically enough, undergraduate business students, many of whom cite finding stable employment as their primary goal of their education, often lack these specific skills. A 2014 analysis of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, an exam administered to 13,000 American undergraduates when they enter and exit university, found that “business students … showed substantially lower gains in writing, complex reasoning, and critical thinking” in comparison with students in the humanities [and] social sciences.” The conclusion: students interested in successful business careers should leverage liberal arts courses to develop necessary skills.

These higher-order thinking and communication skills can serve as the crux of a competitive advantage in the job market. As a result of widespread access to massive online open courses (MOOCs) offered through universities like Yale and MIT, the skills required for technical roles are becoming easier to learn. Furthermore, the dizzying pace of technological change is increasing the speed with which technical skills in fields such as computer science are becoming outdated. Simply put, basic technical skills may help students find their first job after graduation, but they cannot ensure that students will remain employed and/or continue to climb the corporate ladder. To find continued success, young professionals will have not only have to demonstrate knowledge of technical skills, but also display the ability to solve complex problems, communicate clearly, and quickly adapt to changing environments.

Students of the liberal arts are often well positioned to fill in the gaps of models created through traditional business analysis techniques. In Cents and Sensibility, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, professors at Northwestern University, argue that “economic models [often] fall short for lack of human understanding.” They maintain that economics ignores culture, stories, and ethics - three major influences on human behavior, which, if ignored, could lead to grossly inaccurate predictions. Students of the liberal arts, who are often well-versed in literature, history, and psychology, can make sure that quantitative models designed to project future sales, discount future cash flows, and estimate economic growth incorporate an understanding of human emotion.

The empirical evidence also illustrates the power of a liberal arts education.

Jack Ma. Occupation: CEO, Alibaba. Undergraduate major: English.

Stewart Butterfield. Occupation: CEO, Slack. Undergraduate major: Philosophy.

Susan Wojcicki. Occupation: CEO, YouTube. Undergraduate majors: History and Literature.

Simply put, taking liberal arts courses or selecting a liberal arts major will allow students to follow in the footsteps of successful business leaders. Consider the following quote from the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the humanities that yields the results that will make our heart sing.” As the problems that younger generations face become increasingly complex, it is the intersection of the arts and more “practical” disciplines that will yield creative, impactful solutions.

A liberal arts education clearly offers a number of significant benefits - the opportunity to develop relevant skills, competitive differentiation in the job market, and the chance to follow in the footsteps of impressive business leaders. That being said, a liberal arts degree isn’t for everyone. Some some people lack the privilege and flexibility to pursue a course of study that may not result in gainful employment immediately after graduation. For people in that category, remember that you do not need a degree in the liberal arts to pursue a liberal arts education. By all means, take classes in commerce and computer science. That being said, the next time you have a choice between “COMM 3220: Database Management Systems” and “HISA 2001: History and Civilization of Classical India,” consider taking the history class. Who knows, that history class may help you develop skills that will be useful to you later in your career.