“I had no idea what to do with a liberal arts degree, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that students often look skeptically upon these things that don’t seem to have any immediate and practical application,” Johnson said.
The financial struggle of paying for college can tempt students to prioritize the practical and immediate application of a degree — which can be a good thing, said Jenna Robinson, president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.
“These students should be very aware going in about the likely financial ramifications of the majors they choose,” Robinson said.
Provost Jim Dean said he understands the benefits of a liberal arts education and the struggles of paying for higher education, but he believes the liberal arts can lead to a better life.
“I could go on through all of the disciplines, but you can live a much fuller life to the extent that you’ve been exposed to great ideas of the people that have come before you and understand something about the depth and breadth of human experience,” he said.
Dean said combining a professional and liberal arts focus was key, especially for business school students.
“I would actually be truly frightened by a business person who only studied business,” Dean said. “They wouldn’t have had ethics, they wouldn’t have had philosophy, they wouldn’t understand history.”
Ted Zoller, director of the center for entrepreneurial studies in the Kenan-Flagler Business School, agreed.
“I honestly think that the secret to today’s preparation is to fuse a liberal arts background with a skills-based training to really provide people the framework to be able to adapt to their career,” Zoller said.
Zoller said students should be prepared to perform different skills along their career paths, and not feel limited to careers based on the majors they choose.
“I certainly don’t accept that just because you study liberal arts as an undergraduate that you’re putting some ceiling on your career,” Dean said.
Problems arise when students come to college without thinking carefully about their plans, Robinson said.
“I think doing that homework ahead of time can then guide students to make better decisions so they’re not stuck with a bunch of debt not realizing that their major isn’t going to let them pay that off,” Robinson said.
Zoller said students should never feel that they are done learning.
“I honestly believe that learning is changing as well, where it’s not just a question of learn and execute, you’re innovating and learning throughout your career. It’s a life-long learning model we’re going into,” he said.
“No one is going to have a skill set that is up to date. You’ll have to continuously learn. The liberal arts degree is far from outmoded. In fact it will be the best foundation from which to build a vocational type for your career.”