Are Liberal Arts and General Studies Programs Dead?


By: Emma Rose Jun 05, 2019

Are Liberal Arts and General Studies Programs Dead?

Look around at the changes in higher education, and you’d be justified in wondering if liberal arts and general studies programs are dying. After all, modern students are increasingly older, working, and balancing life while pursuing a degree. Today’s student expect her education to do more than expand her mind. She expects a degree that leads to better career prospects and provides a positive return on her significant investment.

Job postings rarely list qualifications as: “must have a wide-ranging education in foundational ideas”.

While it may seem that the cards are stacked against liberal arts and general studies programs, there is still a place for these programs to survive and thrive. Liberal Arts and general studies programs have been under scrutiny for quite some time, and yet they remain. They show few signs of disappearing anytime soon. Savvy institutions are finding ways to make these programs more relevant while growing enrollments in these programs.

Enrollment and Degree Trends

Liberal Arts and General Studies programs were the third most popular program area at four-year institutions in Spring 2018. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollments grew 1.6% in 2018 and 2.5% in 2017.

Over the same time period, more students enrolled in general studies programs at two-year institutions. In fact, liberal arts and general studies programs enrolled more than twice as many students as the next most popular program at two-year institutions. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in the 2015-2016 school year 38% of all associate’s degrees awarded were in liberal arts or general studies, making it the most awarded for the time period.

Many students are earning associate’s degrees in liberal arts and general studies to get their general education requirements out of the way before enrolling in a four-year college. While Liberal arts and general studies programs don’t make the top ten list for bachelor’s degrees, there are still a significant number of students earning bachelor degrees in the field. Over 43,000 bachelor’s degrees were awarded in liberal arts or general studies in the 2015-2016 school year. That number is down only slightly from the high of 47,000 just a decade ago.

All of this sounds encouraging, but it doesn’t mean that liberal arts and general studies programs are completely safe. With overall enrollment declining year after year, no program escapes scrutiny. While liberal arts and general studies programs probably aren’t going away anytime soon, institutions do need to make smart choices to keep these programs vibrant.

Hiram College in Ohio has introduced what it calls “new liberal arts” — programs that integrate technology and hands-on experience into the traditional liberal arts curriculum. For example, students are now required to complete an internship, study-abroad trip or guided research project. That’s how one Liberal Arts college is staying relevant. However, this approach is less likely to work for larger universities that house all different kinds of majors across many colleges.

How can these institutions build and maintain thriving liberal arts and general studies programs?

A major first step is to change the public, and student, perceptions of a liberal arts and general studies degree. The popular cultural perception is that liberal arts and general studies majors will end up as baristas or in other low-income-potential jobs. Pop culture does liberal arts no favors. The Broadway show Avenue Q even includes a song called “What Do You Do With a BA in English?” in which the character sings about his useless degree and how he can’t pay the bills yet.

Thoughtful Marketing Strategies

This is a task that can be achieved through thoughtful marketing that communicates liberal arts degrees as a useful asset, not an expensive luxury. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Showcase success stories – Changing the public perception starts with sharing success stories of students and alumni. Where are they working? What have they accomplished? How has the liberal education benefited them? Show potential students that a liberal arts degree can get them where they want to go.
  2. Explore career services – Most students enroll in college because they believe it will help them get a job. In fact, a Gallup-Purdue survey found that 86% of incoming freshman name getting a better job as a critical factor in their decision to enroll. More students are using career services than ever before, but only 17% said the career services office was very helpful.
    Clearly communicate liberal arts and general studies students that they are eligible for the same career services support as students in any other major. Some students won’t be interested, but many will. Show them that they won’t be alone when trying to find a good job.
  3. Highlight relevant skills – Employers are looking for soft skills like creativity, persuasion and collaboration, skills that liberal arts programs excel at instilling in their students. Craft your messaging to highlight how liberal arts and general studies programs support these soft skills.

Improving enrollment rates for your liberal arts and general studies programs can seem like an overwhelming challenge in the face of changing student expectations. Download our 2020 Post-Traditional College Students Report to learn more about the preferences and characteristics of today’s college students.