There is a lot of talk about how STEM-related degrees are where the money is, but don’t underestimate the value of a liberal arts degree. At the undergraduate level it provides a well-rounded, solid education that can be transferred to a wide variety of careers, including business, law, social work, and more. Society will always need good communicators, researchers, and critical thinkers, and a general humanities degree will provide those timeless skills.
Degree Program Types
An associate’s degree (AA/AS) in the liberal arts is generally intended to prepare students planning on transferring to 4-year programs. Two-year programs will consist of a core area of study, the fundamentals that students get in the first two years of a traditional university.
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Bachelor degree (BA/BS) students can expect to major in a variety of subjects such as english, mathematics, psychology, history, philosophy, and religion. Students will take the specialized, upper-division courses that prepare them for professional work in their chosen field, or for further graduate study.
Graduate school is where students go for the higher credentials (MA/MS/MLS). There are many reasons students go on to graduate study: to earn a higher salary and status in their careers; to become experts in a more specialized, competitive field; or to prepare to teach at a secondary or college level. Students at the graduate level are expected to be more self-motivated, driven, and committed than in undergraduate, because graduate study is usually much more demanding and challenging. Most master’s degree programs are 2-3 years of full-time work, though accelerated online degrees may be only one year.
The highest (or “terminal”) degree for the liberal arts is usually the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). The traditional name can be confusing, as it is applied across disciplines, not just for the philosophy major. The PhD is mainly desirable for those who want to teach and do research; it is usually the standard for employment as a professor at a university or college (though a graduate with a master’s degree can work as a part-time instructor). It is the most specialized and most challenging liberal arts degree, and can take anywhere from 3 to 7 years of post-undergraduate work to complete.
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Online vs. Residential Programs
The main difference between an online and a residential degree program is fairly obvious: human contact. You’re going to get the same material in both. You’re going to take the same exams, write the same papers, and end up with the same degree whether you take courses online or on campus. But there are advantages and disadvantages to each method; online courses require a lot more self-motivation than on-campus, since you don’t have a group of people to spur you on, while on-campus courses are much less convenient and flexible, since they require students to be in class on a rigid schedule.
As little as five years ago, most experts would have advised against getting a liberal arts or humanities degree online, because communication and relationship-building are often key components of a liberal arts education. But with recent advances in online educational platforms, that’s less of a concern; students can engage in spirited discussions, get to know one another through social media, and build mentoring relationships with faculty.
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As a rule of thumb, core courses and upper-division undergraduate courses may be preferable on-campus, since they are foundational and undergraduate students are still getting their sea legs, so to speak. Undergraduate students may need the guidance and group motivation they get from residential programs. Most students feel more comfortable taking graduate courses online, since they already have the basics down and usually have more maturity and motivation than undergraduates. A residential graduate program does still have one advantage over online, however; networking is much more effective in person, and networking can be instrumental to finding employment after graduation.
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There’s no hiding the fact that college tuition is going up everywhere, from small liberal arts colleges to large public research universities. The starting point for all financial aid is FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This is how colleges will determine your need, and how the federal government will determine how much grant and loan money you may be entitled to.
After your FAFSA is processed, there are many avenues for financing your education. Federal grants such as the Pell Grant offer students education funding with no strings attached; these are usually need-based. Many undergraduate students choose to participate in the Federal Work Study program, which grants students money for tuition in exchange for part-time work in the college or university. While they are not free money, they are usually manageable jobs that do not interfere with schoolwork.
Most students end up taking out a student loan. There are generally two types of loans: federal loans, and private loans. Federal loans tend to be low-interest, may be subsidized, and usually have more flexible payback options than private loans; private loans are administrated through private banks, usually have higher interest rates, and can be tougher to pay back.
Working professionals who want to increase their credentials with a higher degree should look into tuition reimbursement. Many companies, knowing the value of well-educated employees, have programs in place to pay part or all of an employee’s college or graduate tuition. Limitations may vary, but generally the degree has to be specific to the employee’s profession, and may have to be completed at a particular institution or in a set period of time. In other words, if you’re working for a bank, they may help you get a finance degree, but they’re probably not going to pay for your MFA in sculpting.
Don’t forget scholarships! There are literally thousands of them being offered by schools, private companies, organizations, rotary clubs, and churches. They are a gift, meaning they are free. Be sure to look into our Top 50 College Scholarships. These are the best of the best, check deadlines and apply early.
Because the liberal arts emphasize transferable, generalist skills, career paths for liberal arts graduates are varied. Many graduates of general liberal arts undergraduate programs move on to graduate school in a more specific field of study such as Law or Business. Others take an entrepreneurial route, using their knowledge to start their own business or service. Graduates in humanities fields such as English, history, and philosophy most often find themselves going into education, usually via graduate school. Students who are attracted to the liberal arts are often the kind of people who like to chart their own course, and the liberal arts gives them the freedom to take that course in a lot of different directions.