Selling a Liberal Arts Education in a STEM World

  • AACRAO Annual Meeting
  • Admissions and Recruitment
  • Communications Plan
  • Enrollment Goals
  • Marketing Research
  • Meetings, Workshops, and Trainings
  • Student Recruitment
Female dressed in red top stands in front of an audience with a projector screen displaying "Any Questions" behind her

With the emerging focus on STEM/STEAM training and education, a liberal arts education has fallen out of favor with politicians, parents, students, and media. That popularity shift may be due, in part, to a misconception about skill demand and employment potential, as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of what a liberal arts education entails.

In her Monday session at the Annual Meeting, Dr. Jacquelyn D. Elliott, President, enrollmentFUEL, and Chief Enrollment Specialist with Marion Military Institute (as well as 2019 Recipient of AACRAO’s Award for Excellence in International Education), talked with attendees about how to define, package, and sell a liberal arts education.

Often, people believe that liberal arts graduates can’t get jobs, and that liberal arts is a dying field, she noted. They believe students need a STEM field major because technology is where the opportunity is. However, Elliot said, that assumption is based on a misapprehension of what liberal arts means and what employers want.

What are liberal arts?
“Part of the problem is that families don’t understand what ‘liberal arts’ means,” Elliott said. “We have a job in the messaging. How do we clarify and do a better job telling them.”

Liberal arts isn’t a single discipline, it’s a program of education. Rather than developing specialized knowledge in a single field, liberal arts degrees require students to obtain a broad base of general education in a variety of fields, including language arts, mathematics, and social and physical sciences. It doesn’t exclude disciplines such as engineering or computer science, but rounds them out with a wider range of educational experiences. This allows for integrative, innovative thinking and professional advancement.

What employers want
Despite the media focus on growth in the tech sector, employers continue to value skills that can be acquired through liberal arts programs but not through STEM specialized programs, including:

  • 93% say demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than the major

  • More than nine in ten say they must hire someone who can demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and desire for continued learning

  • 80% of employers agree that regardless of major, every student needs a broad knowledge of liberal arts and science

“Narrow learning is not enough,” Elliott said. “If we can shape our messaging and marketing around what employers really want, we can help turn the corner.”

Professional development potential: The ‘wow’ moment
In discussion about how to develop messaging that conveys these truths, one audience member noted that her institution strives to “prepare students for lifetime vocation, not just their first job.”

That messaging is on point for marketing liberal arts degrees, Elliott noted, because skills developed through liberal arts are those that prepare students for promotion and advancement.

Mobility potential. Elliott described the following revelation as a ‘wow’ moment for many prospects: “Most employers believe STEM majors are prepared for entry-level positions, while liberal arts are prepared for advancement in the career.”

Although STEM majors may make more money right out of school, over their lifetime, liberal arts majors make an average of $40,000/year more during their peak earning years, because their education has prepared them to develop into leadership and management roles, rather than staying in technical roles. The benefit of a liberal arts degree is career mobility, not stability.

“Liberally-educated people redefine themselves and move up the ladder because they have wide skill set to draw upon across their careers,” Elliott said.

And, in fact, 70 percent of STEM degree holders are not employed in a STEM-related field, undermining the claim that STEM specialties are easy funnels into employment.

Rapport sector. In addition, liberal education skills are in very high demand in the current economy.

“The rapport sector or empathy economy is creating most jobs in the U.S. right now,” Elliott said. “That’s heavily dominated by liberal arts.” Citing the book You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a "Useless" Liberal Arts Education by George Anders, Elliott described the example of Open Table, the online restaurant reservation service. To run the app requires just 14 people in technical positions but 100 people with expertise in communication.

“There’s a huge demand for people who can humanize technology,” Elliott said. That doesn’t mean we don’t need STEM folks, but that the two skills go hand-in-hand.

What are you doing to sell to families?
Elliott offered recommendations for those seeking students interested in liberal arts, including:

  • Purchase those names specifically and tailor/segment your messaging accordingly.

  • Focus on benefits (not features) of education. For example, if you have a top-rated facility, convey how that benefits your students.

  • Emphasize the scaffolding power of co-curricular experiences (such as having learning outcomes for residential life) to support liberal education.

  • Know your statistics, understand the research, and believe in the power of liberal education.