Paying The Rent With A Liberal Arts Degree

Beatrice Rothbaum, Editor-In-Chief

In times of economic uncertainty, it makes sense to question big investments, particularly those with no immediate benefit and dubious long-term returns. And so, once again, the debate over the value of a liberal arts education is now in style. Recent patterns in higher education indicate cause for alarm: In the last 20 years, the number of liberal arts colleges shrunk by nearly 40 percent and the portion of liberal arts majors nearly halved. During the same period, the popularity of professional programs like business and teaching has rapidly increased.

“There’s no denying that the fight between the cerebral B.A. vs. the practical B.S. is heating up,” Newsweek writer Nancy Cook explained last April in an article titled “The Death of Liberal Arts.” “For now, practicality is the frontrunner, especially as the recession continues to hack into the budgets of both students and the schools they attend.” Yet while statistics show that the number of students vying for business degrees rose in the last decade, there is no proof that those degrees are more favorable toward financial success.

Last June, New York Times columnist David Brooks offered a defense for the humanities, which includes benefits like “familiarity with the language of emotion,” and “a great repertoire of comparisons.” He makes a passionate, admirable argument for why it’s important to study the humanities, but brings nothing new to the debate. Let’s face it: Instead of illuminating the virtues of a traditional liberal arts education, it may be more useful to meditate on ways one can directly translate that valuable education into an actual career.

When defending the liberal arts, writers often plunge into a torrent of abstractions and clichés: A liberal arts education teaches you how to think. It prepares you to face life’s challenges with a critical, analytical mind. It’s not about what you learn, but how you learn it. With increased learning capabilities, you’ll be better able to make rational decisions and actually make a difference in the world.

But as the scary finish line approaches — four years and $200K later — it’s a struggle to figure out how to translate the knowledge and skills acquired at Oberlin to life outside of Oberlin. It is unfair to make students choose between studying Shakespeare and steering them toward a career; however, it is equally unreasonable to assume that students can afford to invest in Oberlin without receiving help with future job prospects.

Several liberal arts colleges have recently expanded outdated career services by creating new programs to aid students with networking and career planning. Hamilton College hosts “speed networking” events in which alumni are matched with others who share their interests. Carleton College organizes home-based externships that allow students to spend a week with alumni both at home and at work to gain broader real world perspectives. Other liberal arts colleges have gone so far as to create additional degree programs to provide useful business skills for humanities students.

However, in Oberlin’s culture of hyper-intellectualism, even our Career Services tends to take an abstract approach. One College senior told me about a frustrating appointment with a career advisor: “I told her exactly what I wanted to do and all she did was direct me toward a list of alumni databases. She should have helped me decide which jobs to apply to and to find deadlines for jobs.” Another College senior shared a similar experience: “I wanted to find concrete steps to take. The meeting was very vague and theoretical, so I ended up not doing anything.”

It’s no coincidence that Oberlin has more alumni who earn Ph.D.s than any other liberal arts college in the nation — we aren’t told what else to do. In a world where Ph.D.s are appallingly unemployed, Oberlin should at least present us with a few alternatives. We all came to Oberlin to experience four years of intellectual growth, discovery and creativity — but as graduation looms ahead, what we truly need now is real world guidance.