Should You Freak Out If Your Kid Wants to Major in Liberal Arts?

by ParentCo. June 19, 2017

“So, do you want to be a Sunday school teacher or something?” my mom asked, confused but attempting to withhold judgment. I had just told my parents my chosen major – Religious Studies. The degree was far from a theological one. It was more a comprehensive look at the history, development, and impact of world religions on culture. The study fascinated me, and I longed to take every course in the catalog. I did not, however, want to be a Sunday school teacher. Or a youth minister. Or really anything working in a church. That is a special calling, and one I was not equipped for. I preferred to stay with my nose between books, deciphering Thomas Merton and the Bodhisattva. Outside of Sunday school teacher and youth minister there are not many careers to which a Religious Studies degree naturally leads. The same holds true for many liberal arts degrees. My parents certainly were not the first to ask, “So what exactly do you plan on doing with a Philosophy/Classical Archaeology/Theater degree?” This summer, millions of parents are having that exact same conversation with college students home on break. And with due cause – with college costs skyrocketing, parents want to make sure their children are able to get a return on the pricey investment. Should a parent freak out when their daughter comes home and announces a plan to major in Global Studies? Probably not. But here's a few questions parents can ask to help their children think through their decision.

What do you hope to get out of this degree?

What did I plan on doing with my Religious Studies degree? Nothing. At least, nothing directly. “This degree will teach you how to read and write,” my professor assured our class. While most people would assume that those are skills mastered before entering college, I found that I improved drastically in both areas. I learned to read a variety of texts, parse and compare opinions, and think critically. I learned how to research thoroughly, formulate arguments, and to defend my opinions. These skills have served me far better than any direct knowledge I acquired in the program. Ask your child what she wants from the degree. “A high-paying job” right after graduating with a history degree might be unlikely, but “a better understanding of the world” is a reasonable goal and an important skill that will (eventually) help land that job.

How are you paying?

If your student has taken out loans to fund their education, a cold hard look at finances is in order. That doesn’t mean that your thespian must forfeit the stage in order to pursue a petroleum engineering degree. Contrary to many parents’ fears, liberal arts degrees do not sentence their children to a lifetime of poverty. Attending college – regardless of degree – pays off. Millennial college graduates earn $17,500 more a year than their counterparts with just high school diplomas. And between the ages of 56 to 60, liberal arts majors actually earn $2,000 more a year than workers with more “practical” degrees like business and nursing. It’s important to remind students about the world after the ivory tower. If they have their heart set on a low-earning degree, remind them that they will do best to keep their college costs as small as possible before graduation. It’ll take a lot longer to pay off a spring break trip to Cancun on a Francophone Studies degree than on a Business one.

Will you go to graduate school, and how will you pay?

“A Master’s Degree is the new Bachelor’s Degree” my fellow seniors on campus quipped as we tried to decide our future plans. As much as I loved my Religious Studies degree, I knew I would need something down the road. So I eventually attended graduate school for a (slightly) more practical major in Medical Anthropology and Public Health. This move landed me a job in public policy, after which I eventually became a freelance writer. I realized early on that my interests and talents were not especially lucrative. I knew I needed to keep graduate school costs low so I wouldn’t be paying off a massive debt for years. So I chose an affordable in-state school, worked and used savings to pay off my tuition as I went, and my husband I lived as frugally as possible. Many students – even those pursuing degrees more likely to satisfy parents, such as biology or engineering – will end up requiring graduate school to pursue their chosen career. About 40 percent of students with liberal arts degrees end up pursuing a graduate degree. Even if this move makes the most sense for your child, it’s important to keep the total cost of education in the picture is important for students.

What do you envision for your future?

It’s not necessary to have your life planned out at 19, but helping your child think through what they envision for their future might help guide their decisions. Are they picturing a life in academia, researching obscure 4th century texts? Non-profit environmental conservation work? Waiting tables by day and auditioning for Broadway by night? If so, that might explain why they aren’t too concerned about your insistence they think through their future earning potential. Even if they have envision themselves in a more profitable career, their undergraduate choice might not be the determining factor. If your child wants to become a lawyer, for instance, their choice of undergraduate major probably won’t matter much – as long as they learn those important reading and writing skills and do well on the LSATs. Money, of course, isn’t always the key to happiness, but a fulfilling and interesting job that pays the bills certainly helps. Help your child figure out if their degree can set them on a path to finding that happy medium.

Are you sure?

Even if there is nothing wrong with pursuing a liberal arts degree, it’s a good idea to encourage your child to sleep on it for a night – or a summer. Switching majors midstream can be costly if it adds on an additional year or more or study. Taking six years rather than four to complete a degree can add on $58,000 in tuition and decrease lifetime earnings by $52,900 – a total loss well over $100,000.

What else are you taking?

Between my Hinduism and Middle Eastern music classes, I figured I needed to take some courses that were more practical, so my senior year I squeezed in a few economics classes. While the lectures were not as riveting as what I was used to, I was glad to have that knowledge in my arsenal when I ended up working as a public policy analyst. Encourage a few classes that will help your student gain competency in fields they aren’t initially drawn to. I only ended up teaching Sunday school once post-graduation. Suffice it to say, four years of college did not prepare me for wrangling a room full of chatty first- and second-graders. But I’ve never regretted pursuing something I was passionately interested in. In the end, a college degree is not the determining factor for your child’s success. It’s what they choose to do with it.



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