The future of the liberal arts

When Mark Kendrick ’15 came to William and Mary as a freshman, he wanted to continue pursuing his passion for music, but he felt that he would need a second major — for him, a finance major — to have a financially stable future.

“Music was just such a big part of my life and a passion that I couldn’t give up,” Kendrick said. “Liberal arts at William and Mary gave me the chance to do both. When it came down to it, I chose finance because I do like the subject, but it was more practical.”

According to a recent article in The New York Times, funding and interest in humanities is waning at public universities. The article also explained that pressure for post-graduation employment has increased as well.

The national trend away from liberal arts may result from a struggling economy. Traditionally, students with degrees in the sciences or business are more likely to find employment after graduation.

“Business and [the] sciences are more clearly defined,” Executive Vice President of Career Development at the Sherman and Gloria H. Cohen Career Center Mary Schilling said. “Humanities can scare people because of the shrinking job market. The fact is that the job market is telling us [that] it’s more than the major. You just have to bring the raw cognitive knowledge and the breadth of knowledge in the arts and sciences.”

The College currently has 53 majors, not including the self-defined major option. Six of these majors are in business and eight are in the sciences.

During the 2000-01 school year, 62 percent of degrees conferred were in liberal arts disciplines, as opposed to science or business. During the 2012-13 school year, 50.6 percent of degrees conferred were in the liberal arts, as opposed to science or business. These numbers do not include double majors or minors.

Much like Kendrick, many students in the Mason School of Business either double major or minor in an arts and sciences discipline.  According to Chris Adkins, director of the undergraduate program for the Mason School of Business, one in four business majors are double majoring with an arts or science major, while 40 to 50 percent are minoring in the arts and sciences.

“A strategic strength for us is that our students can do business as well as arts and sciences,” Adkins said. “It’s not an either/or. … It’s a question of how you put them together. It’s how they go together and how they help one another.”

Much like business majors, some undergraduates choose a pre-med track to have a more stable career after graduation. Health Professions Advisor Beverly Sher said this is no longer the case in the medical field.

“I’m actually hearing more hesitancy about [the financial security of] the medical profession these days because of the changing medical industry,” Sher said. “But, William and Mary students are very altruistic, and they want to be doctors and make a difference in the world.”

While the College does not have a pre-med major, some students take a pre-med track, by majoring in any discipline while fulfilling their pre-med requirements.

Sher said last year roughly 100 undergraduate students applied to medical school. Of that number, about 40 were neuroscience majors, 30 majored in biology, 15 majored in chemistry, and others majored in liberal arts disciplines.

According to an ongoing survey conducted by the Career Center, the top three post-grad professions for the class of 2013 are all in the private sector. 12.08 percent are employed in non-profit and non-governmental organizations, 11.88 percent are employed in financial services, and 10.89 percent are employed in corporate consulting.

By contrast, only 0.2 percent of graduates from the William and Mary class of 2013 have found employment in the health care industry.

Schilling said few College alumni follow a career path as predicted by their  major.

“I think that a student who has a liberal arts major may have a more difficult time translating their marketable skills to a potential employer, but this does not mean that they are a less qualified candidate,” Schilling said. “What we’re trying to help students understand is that in the job markets, it’s more than the major. You can apply liberal arts in a variety of arenas.”



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