The headline is alarming—”Is No Degree Better Than A Liberal Arts Degree?“—and the facts within a study from Millennial Branding and Beyond.com which surveyed almost 3,000 hiring managers and job seekers appears to offer little encouragement for any college graduate, much less a liberal arts major.
The results from the survey show:
- 64% of employers would consider a candidate without a college degree
- 73% of hiring managers feel colleges are only “somewhat preparing” students for the working world
And Dan Schwabel, founder of Millennial Branding, provides this misleading advice, “In the current economy, majoring in liberal arts won’t yield good job prospects so you have to pair a liberal arts degree with business courses.”
Clearly he isn’t telling the whole story.
It’s a simple fact: In addition to graduating on time at a rate almost double of public universities, graduates from liberal arts colleges with liberal arts degrees run some of the most successful companies in the world, ones making appearances in the Fortune 1000 such as General Dynamics, CBS, American Express, Priceline, and many others.
Hard vs. Soft Skills
While a business or accounting degree is considered the traditional pathway into the business world, it’s also true the attributes hiring managers say they are looking for are not discipline specific:
- 74% want a demonstrated ability to work as a team
- 83% want communication skills
- 84% want a positive attitude
As a graduate of St. Lawrence University, Jeff Boyd attributes much of his success in leading the team which turned around Priceline, first as its CEO and then as Executive Chairman of its board of directors, to his liberal arts background. “What you learn is how to learn and you learn to take pleasure in it,” he said. “As a liberal arts graduate, I think you have a broad understanding not just of how businesses work but how people work. I think I was well prepared to address a variety of problems that come up in the context of a large business organization. Those skills are at play every day.”
And, much like the hiring managers surveyed by Millennial Branding, he is more interested in hiring the right people as opposed to a certain degree. The difference is he sees liberal arts graduates as having the abilities to fit the bill. “The most important thing is intellect and energy and the ability to get things done. … And it just turns out that a lot of really accomplished people have a liberal arts background.”
Bringing a different perspective from an eclectic background has also proven to be effective for Phebe Novakovic, CEO of General Dynamics. A student of government and German at Smith College, after graduation she completed an MBA at the Wharton School of Business, was a CIA operations officer, and worked in procurement at the Pentagon.
When presented with an opportunity at General Dynamics, she knew she didn’t have the engineering background that might seem like a prerequisite. However, the team in place there appealed to her. “It was different,” she said. “The CEO and chairman at the time was a trial attorney from Chicago, and I thought, ‘Well, there’s a bit of an iconoclastic culture here and maybe there’s a place for me.'” The results? Since the beginning of her tenure, both General Dynamic’s stock prices and profit margins have steadily and significantly increased.
The Moving Target
Another issue identified by the Millennial Branding study is employers’ lack the ability to communicate their talent needs. Over 60 percent of the companies surveyed said within the past two years their skill-set demands had changed, but barely 50 percent had communicated that information to students and colleges. So, graduates who are flexible and can adapt to the ever-increasing rate of change in the business world are imperative as talent needs outpace job descriptions.
This relates to what Leslie Moonies, CEO of CBS, told graduating students in his 2016 commencement address at Bucknell University, his alma mater. After failing organic chemistry, his parents’ dream for him to become a doctor was over. However, upon moving to New York after graduation he discovered a liberal arts curriculum had prepared him well for a career in television production, which doesn’t come with a standardized job description.
He found his Shakespeare courses allowed him to evaluate every show, plot line, and point of view of a drama or comedy. His theater classes taught him to recognize, appreciate, and nurture talent. Courses in history gave him the perspective to understand the kinds of issues CBS News deals with every day.
In short, Moonves credits his Bucknell University education with giving him a distinct advantage over his competitors, people who might have been great business minds but lacked his creative background. “The bottom line is that I left Bucknell far better prepared than I ever imagined” and that has made all the difference, he said.
In a similar manner, Maggie Wilderotter, CEO of Frontier Communications from 2004-15, found the opportunities provided at the College of the Holy Cross outside of her economics and business classes led to her career. As noted when she was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, thanks to extracurricular activities behind the microphone hosting a radio show, providing both play-by-play and color commentary for Holy Cross sports, and being the head of sports radio on campus created an entryway into the communications field.
Culture & Community
At 43 percent, “cultural fit” was identified by HR professionals as the single most important element in the hiring process. Who you are as a person is as much or more important than the courses you’ve taken (or even your GPA) according to Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express since 2001—only the third African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company—and a graduate of Bowdoin College with a history degree. He sees integrity as being a key component of the American Express culture and is looking for people who embody it.
During an interview, Chenault will ask, “‘Take me through where you felt you had to compromise your values.’ That gets people into a discussion. People are very uncomfortable talking about their values, but it is critical to understand leadership attributes that person values.”
At the same time, “cultural fit” in successful companies also entails the ability to promote and embrace change. That means Chenault wants to know if a person is intellectually curious and open to a wide range of perspectives: “To operate in this business environment, you can’t just be a one trick pony, and I’ll ask them ‘What are some of the things you have done that you think were out of your comfort zone?’ People have a different way of talking about their comfort zone, but what you can start to glean is, from an intellectual standpoint, how open were they to different ideas and views?”
In the end, Chenault’s purpose is to assemble and maintain a team with the goal, as he says, “to be the company that will put us out of business because that means that there’s a focus on constant reinvention and that is a very important attribute of our company.”
Reimagining the core business is a key to success for Jim Murren, CEO of MGM Resorts International, and who studied art history and urban studies at Trinity College. As discussed in a Washington Post profile, “Murren has redefined the role of a casino chief executive, designing properties as destinations that offer much more than slot machines and blackjack tables by spending heavily on design, artwork, environmental sustainability and entertainment.”
Murren is also an outspoken proponent of education in Nevada. He sees education as a key component to creating a community mindset built upon both environmental sustainability and cultural diversity, not just a way for an employee to make a living working at one of his casinos.
Liberal Arts in the 21st Century
Yes, the Millennial Branding study statistics tell one story about job seekers:
- 31% say a degree isn’t worth the cost
- 33% would have rather started a business than go to college
- 53% feel college doesn’t prepare students for the real world
But, as Marc Lautenbach, CEO of Pitney Bowes and a Denison University graduate, said at Wake Forest’s Rethinking Success: From the Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century conference, “There’s really great energy to move liberal arts curriculum into the 21st century and make it something that’s relevant and vital for kids these days that are in school. I think the important point is that each institution has their own view of what success is for them. And they purposefully try to engineer those outcomes for their students and that’ll let students do a better job selecting which school they go to because it’ll be very transparent about what the school’s trying to do.”
The humanistic approach at liberal arts colleges, as opposed to a vocational concentration, offers graduates opportunities to succeed in the business arena; not only are students prepared for their field of choice, they are adaptable to ever-changing environments.
Adaptability, cultural fit, willingness to extend past comfort zones, and the capacity to think “outside the box” are traits highly sought after by employers and commonly found in the most successful people running Fortune 1000 companies.
When it comes to developing these traits, the liberal arts colleges clearly have the advantage.
So, with all due respect to those who like to write headlines that bash a liberal arts degree, we’re on the side of those who are ahead of the curve on this topic. Leaders such as Mark Cuban, who believe liberal arts degrees are the future of jobs.