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What is a liberal arts degree?

An author puts a liberal arts degree to work

By Elizabeth Exline

At a glance

  • Liberal arts refers to the academic study of literature, sociology, languages, philosophy, history, math, science and the humanities.
  • Most bachelor’s degree programs require the completion of a substantial number of liberal arts credits because of the coursework’s versatility and value.
  • As a liberal arts major, a student may pursue a variety of career opportunities, including such roles as author, technical writer or environmental specialist.
  • Gain in-demand soft skills, such as critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, with one of University of Phoenix’s online liberal arts degree programs.

If college degrees were cliché high school cliques, the business and IT degrees would be the popular kids while the liberal arts degrees would be the theater and debate students.

Yes, jobs in business and information technology are growing, but the arts, with their focus on the humanities and social sciences, offer students a different way of thinking about their education and careers. Whereas business majors often plan on pursuing careers in that field, the liberal arts are less restrictive. Their holistic approach to learning, thinking and even living means you could major in the liberal arts and be as likely to pursue a career in law as poetry.

What does that mean for your career? Well, just as a high school reunion invariably surprises with the outcomes of one’s peers, getting a liberal arts degree can lead to a variety of roles that enhance your life rather than define it.

What is liberal arts?

Contrary to what you might assume from the name, a liberal arts degree refers neither to politics nor art.

Rather, the term liberal refers to freedom of thought and exploration, while arts refers to areas of study like the humanities and social sciences.

The essence of a liberal arts degree is to encourage critical-thinking and problem-solving skills by grounding a student’s education in the various branches of classical knowledge.

Sound fancy? In a way, it is. Instead of honing your computer science skills or mastering the styles of leadership, an arts degree offers students the luxury of study and thought.

But that doesn’t mean it’s education for education’s sake. As noted in U.S. News & World Report, liberal arts majors often have the sophistication and curiosity to grow into a variety of roles. Which one simply depends on a graduate’s interest.

An arts degree can take many forms, from an online English degree to even an online environmental science degree, depending on the institution a student attends.

What are the liberal arts?

In medieval times, the liberal arts referred to seven key areas of study:

  • Grammar, rhetoric and logic (the trivium)
  • Geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy (the quadrivium)

Today, a liberal arts major might study:

  • Literature: Not only do you get to read some of the greatest books ever written, you get to analyze and discuss them with likeminded peers. These are critical-thinking skills that can be applied to virtually any career, whether you’re planning a marketing campaign or analyzing a spreadsheet.  
  • Languages: French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Russian, Arabic, Mandarin — find your love language and get ready to study more than just conjugations! This field of study encompasses the origins, culture and literature of your chosen tongue. Being bilingual can be leveraged in a variety of career outcomes, from translating written works to negotiating business deals.
  • Philosophy: Enter the realm of Descartes, Pascal and other great philosophers while wrestling with the theoretical concepts that create a framework for life. Philosophy can be foundational for careers in business, law and related fields.
  • History: There’s no time like the present to make sense of the past. Travel through time and space to understand how yesterday’s people and events shaped the present. This field of study offers foundational knowledge for postgraduate degree programs and careers such as teaching, journalism or writing.
  • Mathematics: Like languages and philosophy, mathematics can be applied to make sense of the world we live in, from statistics and analysis courses to research projects. This field of study can be applied to careers in business, teaching and more.
  • Science: Biology and physical sciences, as opposed to physics and chemistry, take center stage in the liberal arts. Science degrees can be applied to a number of careers, from environmental specialists to working in public health to pursuing a postgraduate education.
  • Religion: Go beyond the familiar to explore the religions and cultures of different times and places. As with history, studying religion can provide a foundation for further study or careers in theology, writing and related fields.
  • Social sciences: Psychology, sociology, anthropology and even political science and economics all fall under this umbrella. These subjects can lay the groundwork for working in such fields as politics, social work and counseling.

Get the most out of any degree experience with these six tips for refreshing your study space.

What are liberal arts colleges?

Liberal arts colleges are higher education institutions whose curriculum and degree programs underscore the classical areas of study mentioned above: the humanities, science, mathematics and the social sciences.

Additionally, they “may offer a curriculum with or without an option for a major,” writes U.S. News & World Report.

Students may earn a liberal arts degree at most colleges or universities, but if they attend a liberal arts college, their studies will touch on a wide range of subjects and even experiences.

The same article, for example, references class trips as opportunities for personal exploration and growth, which are valued as part of the liberal arts college experience.

Perhaps even more compelling, a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found, “The ROI at liberal arts institutions is the third highest among the 14 different types of four-year institutions.” That finding, however, is mitigated by other factors such as choice of major, choice of school and regional per capita income.

Liberal arts colleges have a few other traits in common as well:

  • They are usually small: Classes at liberal arts institutions tend toward intimate class sizes over vast lecture halls with hundreds of students.
  • They focus on undergraduate education: Traditional state universities show a lot of love to graduate programs, as well as research and publication, while liberal arts colleges home in on the undergraduate experience.  
  • They emphasize learning to learn rather than learning a vocation: Students at liberal arts colleges are encouraged to pursue “broad academic inquiry,” writes U.S. News & World Report for a dynamic educational experience.

What is a liberal arts degree good for?

Lots of things! In addition to imparting a love of learning and a broad base of knowledge, a liberal arts degree gives students the privilege of choice.

What does that mean?

Consider the skills covered by a liberal arts degree:

  • Analytical reasoning
  • Critical thinking
  • Verbal and written communication
  • Research
  • Creativity
  • Collaboration

These form the foundational soft skills that are in demand virtually everywhere. That means a liberal arts degree gives graduates transferable skills that can be applied to a variety of roles and industries.

While it’s true that, from a financial perspective a liberal arts degree has a somewhat middling potential, it’s equally true that you’ll get from it what you put into it. For every Hamilton Project that reveals liberal arts degrees fall just above early childhood education degrees and just below criminal justice degrees in terms of median lifetime earnings, there is a CEO who defies the odds. (Looking at you, Howard Schultz!)

Benefits of a liberal arts degree

How can a liberal arts degree improve your life? Let us count the ways.

1. It can make you innovative. Remember how a liberal arts degree focuses on learning many disciplines and finding connections between disparate subjects? Well, one result of that practice is enhanced problem-solving and innovation.

2. It prepares you to weather the ups and downs of the job market. As portfolio careers gain momentum in the modern workplace, candidates who have knowledge of a broad range of subjects as well as transferable skills become more flexible job candidates. Another perk? While automation is a real concern for many industries, the liberal arts is a domain relatively free of the threat posed by artificial intelligence.

3. It can help you become a better teacher. This doesn’t just apply to professional teachers. Knowing how to share information makes you a more valuable colleague and a potential leader in the workplace.

4. It lays the foundation for graduate school. Being well versed in the liberal arts means you know how to research and learn across various disciplines. What does this sound like? (Hint: It begins with “diss” and ends with “ertation.”)

What jobs can you prepare for with a liberal arts degree?

What jobs can’t you prepare for with liberal arts degree?

OK, maybe the liberal arts aren’t quite that versatile, but they do set graduates on track for a variety of careers. Here, we outline some real-world options.

Creative writer

Overview: Develop written content for various media, including advertisements, blogs, books, magazines and the arts.

National salary range: Creative writers earned between $35,880 and $133,460 in May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Education requirements: A college degree in English, communication or journalism is typical.

Job outlook: Jobs are projected to grow 9% between 2020 and 2030, according to BLS.

Technical writer

Overview: Convey complex and/or technical information clearly and succinctly via instruction manuals, how-to guides, journal articles and related documents.

National salary range: In May 2020, technical writers earned between $45,510 and $119,040, according to BLS.

Education requirements: A bachelor’s degree in English, communication or journalism is typical.

Job outlook: Jobs are projected to grow 12% between 2020 and 2030, according to BLS.

Environmental specialist

Overview: Work to protect the environment and human health via knowledge of the natural sciences.

National salary range: Environmental specialists earned between $42,960 and $129,450 in May 2020, according to BLS.

Education requirements: A bachelor’s degree in natural science or a science-related field is typical.

Job outlook: Jobs are projected to grow 8% between 2020 and 2030, according to BLS.

Salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

First stop, liberal arts. Second stop, law school?

Remember that privilege of choice afforded by a liberal arts degree? It turns out that applies to more than just transferable skills. A liberal arts degree is the preferred degree for several graduate or professional degrees.

According to, for example, the top 10 majors for law school do not include pre-law. They do include English, history, philosophy and other humanities degrees, as well as some science degrees.

Coupled with a solid LSAT score, these liberal arts majors are attractive to law schools for the educational foundations they provide. Specifically, these are abstract and logical thinking, reading comprehension and reasoning skills.

Perhaps more surprisingly, liberal arts majors may even pursue medical school after completing a bachelor’s degree program. U.S News & World Report notes that at least 19% of students entering 12 different medical schools in 2019 did so with a degree in either the humanities or social sciences.

The advantages of pursuing a liberal arts degree ahead of medical school are profound. For one, it’s a differentiating factor that will set you apart from most applicants. It’s also a good way to become a more dynamic and relatable doctor.

Does this mean pre-med students should jump ship on their biology degrees and major in philosophy instead? Not exactly. The majority of medical students do pursue majors in a science discipline, and everyone must complete the prerequisite classes no matter which degree he or she pursues. But opting for a degree in the liberal arts can offer graduates more options than they might think.

Frequently asked questions about liberal arts degrees

Still not sure what’s involved with a liberal arts degree? Check out these FAQs!

Is liberal arts an easy degree?

Is research easy? Is critical thought easy? Is effective writing easy? No. And neither is a liberal arts degree.

That said, it is interesting. And for curious students eager to expand their knowledge across disciplines, a liberal arts degree may not be easy, but it is worth the effort.

Sometimes, a liberal arts degree is considered easy because, depending on your area of study, you may not be required to take more advanced courses in subjects you find challenging. But choosing a degree program based on what you want to avoid makes less sense than basing your choice on your skills and aptitudes.

Is a liberal arts degree worth it?

This depends on your desired outcome. A degree in liberal arts can be ideal for students with a lot of curiosity about the world and flexibility with regard to their careers. For those looking to pursue a singular career in a technical field like computer science, on the other hand, a liberal arts degree probably isn’t the best use of your time or money.

What is the purpose of a liberal arts education?

As with any education, a liberal arts education enhances one’s knowledge and empowers a person to successfully engage with and shape the world.

More specifically, the liberal arts emphasize the development of a person’s ability to think critically and communicate effectively, skills that find purpose in a variety of careers.

What is the liberal arts experience like at University of Phoenix?

Where traditional liberal arts colleges create the proverbial ivory tower experience for students, University of Phoenix brings the liberal arts into the real world.

As with all programs at University of Phoenix, the liberal arts offerings are grounded in relevant skills aligned to specific career outcomes, whether that’s working as a technical writer or serving as an environmental specialist.

Online degree programs at University of Phoenix are offered one class at a time with most classes taking five to six weeks to complete.

Becoming a liberal arts major opens the door to a world of knowledge. And considering how long the liberal arts have been in place — stretching back to medieval times and beyond — you will find yourself in some intellectually stimulating company.

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