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Liberal Arts vs. Professional Education: Which is Better?

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As the job market becomes more competitive, students and parents alike are increasingly wary of spending the money for a degree they fear won’t help them get a job. The result is a shift in the educational world towards “professional” or “career-oriented” programs – paths that prepare students specifically for one field of work, such as NYU’s Stern School of Business or UCLA’s School of Nursing. The purported advantages of a professional education are that they better prepare students to enter the workforce, arm students with practical skills necessary for success in their chosen fields, and offer more stable, high-paying employment prospects straight out of college. Despite these arguments in favor of career-oriented education, many highly-respected schools, such as Williams and Amherst Colleges and most of the Ivy League universities, still focus their undergraduate education on the liberal arts. Liberal arts and professional education programs provide different experiences to their students, and debate has begun to surface over which is most advantageous in the long run. With the prospect of applying to college and choosing a major looming over many of your heads, we at CollegeVine have decided to break down the differences between a liberal arts and professional education to help you figure out which is best for you.


What is a “Liberal Arts Education”?


Before we start talking about the relative advantages of a liberal arts education, it’s probably smart to first define what exactly it is. Contrary to what some initially believe, the “liberal” in liberal arts doesn’t mean politically liberal. Rather, a liberal arts education is one that includes instruction in broad, central disciplines such as English, history, math, and science, and focuses on developing skills like problem-solving, critical analysis, and effective written and oral communication.


Liberal arts educations are the focus of aptly-named liberal arts colleges (LACs), typically small, residential institutions where pre-med, business, nursing, and other professional programs are usually not offered to students. Many large universities also include liberal arts colleges within the university, such as Harvard College and Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. However, nearly all students are familiar with a liberal arts education, even if they haven’t encountered it in these contexts; general education requirements at any public or private school are examples of a liberal arts education.


What are the Advantages of a Liberal Arts Education?


A liberal arts education emphasizes dynamism and diversity. Rather than specialization in a sole field or skill set, your undergraduate experience at an LAC or at a school that features general education requirements will include exposure to a wide range of topics beyond what’s directly relevant to your major. Proponents of liberal arts education claim that the broad base of knowledge it instills in all students allows them to be both successful in their specific line of work while also having a comprehensive understanding of the world around them.


While at a liberal arts university you may major in anything from neurobiology to comparative literature, the most important facet of your education is the skills you’ve developed. Classes in the liberal arts are designed to develop critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and teamwork skills that happen to be precisely what employers seek in potential employees. The value of these skills is their wide applicability and ability to adapt with the evolving technological and economic state of the world.


How is Professional Education Different than a Liberal Arts Education?

While a liberal arts education includes instruction in a variety of topics and emphasizes the development of critical skills, a professional education seeks to educate students in one specific topic and prepare them directly for entrance into the professional world. Any pre-med, nursing, engineering, business, or other similarly specialized program is an example of what is called professional, career-oriented, or vocational education. Unlike the liberal arts, professional education focuses less on developing a broad range of knowledge, and instruction is oriented only towards the skills necessary to succeed in that field.


What are the Advantages of Professional Education?


Because professional education programs are focused on teaching students what they need to know to be a doctor, nurse, or engineer, students that graduate from these programs are supposedly better prepared to enter the workforce than their liberal arts educated counterparts. For some professions, this is admittedly true. Professional education in engineering, for example, is necessary to be a successful engineer. For this reason, many schools that otherwise emphasize liberal arts education include a separate engineering school, such as Columbia’s Fu Foundation and Princeton’s SEAS.


For students who are already sure of the career path they want to take, professional education is the most direct way of becoming educated and prepared to enter that field. Many professional schools include limited or totally absent general education requirements that allow students to forgo topics not relevant to their major and direct their energy towards mastery of their chosen discipline. The efficiency of professional education is a huge draw for these students.


While the lack of academic diversity in professional education is considered an advantage by some, there are also those who believe it puts students at a disadvantage in our rapidly shifting world, where the technical skills taught in school can easily become obsolete given the changing professional landscape. In this regard, some consider a liberal arts education the superior path, as the skills developed are universally applicable.


So Which is Better?


A large factor of comparison between liberal arts and professional education is the potential salary of a graduate. Many seem to believe a professional education will result in a higher salary, and indeed those recently graduated from professional programs do earn slightly higher salaries on average than their counterparts in the liberal arts. However, when comparing the average salaries of professional and liberal arts graduates later on in their careers, liberal arts students earn the same or slightly more on average. What your salary will be depends much more on your chosen career field than whether you received a professional or liberal arts education, but the belief that a liberal arts degree will inevitably lead to a lower salary simply does not hold water.
In comparing a liberal arts or professional education, it’s impossible to say one is definitively better than the other. Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses, and while some disciplines are favored by a liberal arts system, such as English and history, others require at least some degree of professional schooling, especially pre-med, nursing, and engineering. However, the dichotomy between the liberal arts and professional education programs isn’t as clearly defined as it may initially seem. Most professional schools require students to take at least one general education course, thus establishing some exposure to the liberal arts, and professional advising and specialized courses are becoming increasingly common at LACs and research universities alike. Some universities, such as Arizona State University, are even beginning to pioneer methods of education that incorporate aspects of both systems in order to best prepare the next generation of students to enter the workforce.



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Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor

Short Bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.