Alumni Column: The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

Robert C. Johnson, Class of 1994

Living in the land of the Big 12 and SEC and having kids who are starting to think about college, I often find myself having to defend liberal arts universities. Many of our kids’ friends have already decided to head to the University of Texas or Texas A&M, and they aren’t even in high school yet! The idea of a school like Colgate is simply foreign to them.

My wife and I both graduated from Colgate, so we’re clearly fans of its type of education. The things that you learn and experiences that you have at a school like Colgate are simply not repeatable at a large state school. Certainly, these types of schools provide excellent educations, but it’s important to understand the differences and that – for some students – a liberal arts education is a better path.

I realize that by the venue I’m writing this in that I’m preaching to the choir, but I do think you need to be prepared to defend the liberal arts and educate your peers and potential employers.

What makes the liberal arts special?

During the course of your career, you will see immense change. No one can predict the future and tell you what that change will be, but I can definitely guarantee change. Many university programs focus on teaching specific content, and the issue with that is the content will get stale and outdated in a short time period.

Spending four years getting a liberal arts degree will prepare you for a life of change. You will graduate being able to think critically, solve problems, communicate effectively, and work well in teams.

No, you may not have as much specific sector knowledge as someone who graduated from a specialized program, but you will have the tools to continue learning and adapting over your entire career. You will also graduate with the confidence that you can learn. In a career that is guaranteed to be full of change, your ability to learn new technologies, processes and methodologies will serve you very well.

Employers are looking for this skill set. Speaking as someone who has hired a lot of people for my companies over the years, it is very hard to find people with these skills. When I hire someone, I don’t want an automaton who will only do one job – I want people who will think strategically, can communicate well and can solve problems. All of these are core traits of the liberal arts experience.

Occasionally you will have to defend the liberal arts, and this is especially true in your first job interview.  Undoubtedly you will get a question similar to “Tell me how your degree in Uruguayan Poetic Prose from the 15th Century has prepared you for a career in industrial sewer treatment” (apologies to both Uruguayan majors and anyone interested in sewer treatment). You should have this answer well prepared and be confident about it.  Explain the virtues of your exceptional education and how it has well prepared you. Don’t be afraid to use specific examples of papers you wrote or projects you worked on.  

In most cases, unless you are going to remain in education or have a career in a hard science, your undergraduate degree will only have a passing relationship to what you actually end up doing for a living. However, the skills that you learn in a strong liberal arts program will last you the rest of your life and be beneficial in whatever career choices you make.

The Alumni Council represents the 32,000 living Colgate alums and is comprised of 56 voting members across all eras, regions and demographics of the alumni body.  They meet three times a year on campus to discuss issues with university administrators, staff, faculty, and undergraduates — voicing the views of fellow alumni in an advisory capacity while also promoting engagement between Colgate, current students, and graduates.