My oldest child is in college. When I run into parent acquaintances from her high school days, the conversation quickly turns to what our respective graduates are doing with their lives. When I tell them that my daughter is a theater major with a music minor, it usually goes like this: Their eyes widen momentarily and the smile freezes on their faces. I can almost see the wheels turning in their minds as they search for the right response. Some smile and nod, offering some version of “Good for her!” or “That’s great!”
Others feel the need to voice their concerns. “Will she be able to make a living?” Or even, “Well, I guess she’ll be living in your basement, huh?” One of my husband’s colleagues jokingly asked if he would see our grad playing her guitar and singing for tips at Pike Place Market. My daughter was even told by a family friend that she’d better “marry rich.”
The fact that we fully support her endeavors — and did not try to talk her into a different educational path — puzzles many of our friends and family. Maybe that’s in part because she is one of a shrinking group of university students who are getting degrees in the liberal arts and humanities. At the University of Washington alone, the number of students majoring in humanities has plummeted over the last decade, with some majors decreased by 50 percent. The push for STEM education has been a contributing factor as more students choose STEM majors over arts and humanities degrees.
It’s understandable, parents want their kids to become contributing members of society — and most importantly — be financially independent. Considering the high cost of a college education, some feel that money spent on a degree with a guaranteed job path makes sense. I think that both the dismissive attitude of our friends and the downward trend of students majoring in humanities stems from the public’s perception of these fields. But these stereotypes are outdated.
What many don’t realize is that although the path to a well-paid job after obtaining a degree in liberal arts or the humanities may not be straightforward, the skills learned in this education are highly valued in a wide variety of fields. For example, an engineering degree will most likely lead to a job as an engineer, but a BA or Masters in English could lead to a diverse array of job opportunities. These degrees don’t prepare students for a specific job, but instead teach communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. The critical thinking piece is especially important in our current political climate. We need people who can analyze current issues, understand multiple points of view and be engaged citizens.
Plus, the trope of the starving artist is largely a myth. Companies need and are hiring employees that can work as a team, write clearly, communicate effectively and be both creative and flexible — all skills emphasized in a liberal arts curriculum. These grads aren’t necessarily earning low wages, either. Though arts majors earn less than their peers with engineering degrees, they still make more than those with associate’s degrees or no higher education at all. And even when liberal arts grads start out at lower salaries, over time they catch up in earnings.
As a parent of a child majoring in liberal arts, these studies reassure me, but they aren’t the reason we support our student. We support her because she is following her passion, but more importantly, society needs her skills, too. We need people in the STEM careers, but in our rapidly evolving and increasingly digital society, we also need the arts and the human touch they bring more than ever.