Can English Majors Find Jobs?

A joke going around the Internet features a picture of the Dos Equis beer spokesman, the “Most Interesting Man in the World,” with a caption: “I don’t always talk to English majors, but when I do, I ask for a venti cappuccino.” The joke is that English majors have a hard time finding a job after college.

But is that true? And if it is, what should colleges do about it? A recent conference sponsored by Wake Forest University in mid-April addressed the liberal arts and career success, arguing that the two are not incompatible.

Speakers from University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan to former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that English majors (and other liberal arts majors) often have a hard time finding a job right out of college. Depressing statistics abound: half of young college graduates are jobless or underemployed, student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt, and landmark studies have brought into serious question how much learning is actually taking place in higher education. Today’s parents and students are understandably skeptical about the value of any degree that doesn’t lead directly to a job.

Participants in the conference, meanwhile, would like them to reconsider.

The “Rethinking Success” conference had a dual purpose—reaffirming the value of a liberal arts education and developing practical ways to get liberally educated graduates into successful careers. By liberal arts, the speakers meant the humanities, such as history and philosophy, as well as the sciences—rather than disciplines centered on skills necessary for a specific occupation, such as marketing, engineering, or accounting.

Many speakers—college presidents, professors, authors, businessmen, and non-profit leaders—argued that a broad education is underappreciated in society. They contended that if the public only understood the value of the liberal arts, it would have a more favorable opinion, more students would enroll, and society would be better off. 

So one approach was to tell more people about it. For instance, Mark Roche, Notre Dame professor and author of Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, suggested a national public relations campaign along the lines of the three values of a liberal education that he outlined in his book. He said a liberal arts degree has value in itself, informing students’ personal philosophies; it has practical value, through the skills it promotes; and it has formative value in the intellectual virtues it cultivates.

Christopher Howard, president of all-male Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, largely concurred, insisting that a broad liberal arts education is still valuable in the long run despite the large number of coffee house baristas (and other low-wage workers) with bachelor’s of arts degrees. When college graduates “become the Jeff Immelts of the world, the Meg Whitmans of the world… we don’t want them building spreadsheets,” Howard said. “We want their judgment, we want their sense of history, we want them to have a breadth that allows them to lead” in areas beyond their specific skill set.

Unfortunately, said Howard, today’s economic sluggishness has meant that businesses are able to find applicants with credentials more closely fitted to specific jobs, relieving them of the expense of training new employees. Thus, they pass over liberal arts graduates who don’t have the specific skills they want. In fact, although businesses still often say they are looking for “well-rounded” employees, Howard (speaking from his experience at General Electric and Bristol-Myers Squibb) said that when they do so, they are “damned liars.”

So, if the study of the liberal arts is to persist, selling it will be a tough job. To make the medicine easier to swallow, a few speakers had proposals for helping graduates get ahead in their careers.

Stanton Green, a dean at Monmouth University in New Jersey, had a number of suggestions for helping liberal arts majors find jobs. One was to make such students more aware of the possibilities in front of them. “Where do people find jobs?” asked Green. “Where they look for them,” he said, answering his own question.  His point was that students who study the liberal arts have skills that could be applied to many different occupations if they would only consider them as possibilities.

Green said that usually one of the last areas that liberal arts majors look for jobs is the corporate world, but corporations are actually a great place for them. He blames universities, at least in part. A pet peeve of his is career fairs for humanities majors that exclude corporations in favor of non-profits like the Peace Corps or museums

Organizers of the Wake Forest conference, perhaps thinking that in connecting students to jobs it would be helpful to know more about the students, devoted one panel to a discussion of the characteristics of today’s college students. Neil Howe, author of a couple of books on what makes different generations different, had some very interesting things to say about the “millennials,” described as those born in the same general period as today’s college students. Millennials, Howe said, are remarkable as a generation in that they feel entitled, pressured, and optimistic.  They expect both themselves and those around them to succeed in life—something that can make failure even more painful than usual.

Howe also noted that the parents of millennials, “generation X-ers,” pose a challenge for academia in general and the liberal arts in particular. Compared to Baby Boomers, generation X parents are more bottom-line focused and tend not to trust colleges (including when they make claims in favor of the liberal arts). Howe warned that there is “a cold wind beginning to blow through your colleges,” referring to today’s parents’ skepticism.

Will the measures proposed by conferees—a national public relations campaign and/or more effective career services offices—be enough to stave off that “cold wind?” Speakers at the conference were optimistic, but, then again, they have a professional stake in being hopeful.

From where I sit—considering the terrible job outlook for recent graduates, the skyrocketing debt that students are accumulating, and the growing skepticism of parents—I’d say the proposed policy changes, especially the career-services ones, are good ones, but it’s difficult to see much hope for reversing the declining popularity of the liberal arts in the future. The currents of this enterprise of great pith and moment have turned awry, and it will take more than a conference or two to turn them back.