In a previous post, I pointed out that when we consider what students are actually studying, concerns over the demise of the liberal arts are overblown. Students are not recoiling from subjects that have few direct lines to post-graduation employment. The social sciences and the humanities, that presumably underpin our democracy, have not been replaced by more utilitarian fields. Whatever the government’s lack of interest in funding the liberal arts, or in the increasing emphasis on marketable skills, the numbers of students graduating from the social sciences and humanities has barely budged since the early 1990s.
What I didn’t consider was why the liberal arts remain popular. It may be that commerce and engineering programs, for instance, have entrance requirements that make them inaccessible to the average student. If this were true then the thesis that the liberal arts have been replaced may have some traction. That is, if it can be shown that high achieving students have been increasingly less likely to major in English or sociology then they would have been in the past. Though there is some evidence to suggest this isn’t the case. For example, at the University of British Columbia, students entering the faculty of arts will need a minimum high school average of 85 per cent, suggesting even high achieving students are opting for the liberal arts.
Still, it might be the case that by providing a comparatively less exhausting path to a credential, the continued popularity of the liberal arts may have as much to do with finding employment as more professionally oriented programs.
A new survey, however, suggests that the liberal arts attracts students who are relatively unconcerned with pursuing employment. Last spring, Academica Group surveyed 150,000 students who were applying to more than 40 colleges and universities. The aim of the study was to determine what draws students to “specific institutions.” Liberal arts students, dubbed “higher-ed traditionalists,” were found to “place less weight on employment outcomes and even grad school placements than their peers in other programs, and are less concerned with co-op programs.”
Similar to applicants of other programs, students applying to arts place importance on the quality of faculty and resources but, “they place significantly more emphasis on library collections,” and “less weight on investments in the latest technology, high-profile research, and undergraduate research opportunities.” Liberal arts students were also found to give greater consideration to the student experience, such as whether the campus is attractive, the quality of the residences and “student diversity.” They are also more likely to be attracted to “clubs and social activities, and off-campus urban life,” while “being less concerned with recreational facilities or varsity athletics.”
What this suggests is that so long as there are students who view university as a pleasant way to spend four years, or as an interval between adolescence and adulthood, there will be a market for the social sciences and humanities.