Liberally educated cashiers

In Chronicle of Higher Education (registration required), a professor writes about seeing a talented former student who’d earned a degree in English with a minor in information science. She was working as a cashier at Target.

However I rationalize it, in my gut I feel that it is not right for someone to spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars to end up with the kind of job one could have right out of high school. She had done everything right, all the way up the educational ladder. And there she was, in my spiraling imagination, a refutation of any lingering belief I had in the relationship between merit and job opportunity.

It seems like it’s always the top students who realize too late that performance in school does not lead directly to success in the job market. The connected get good jobs, whatever their abilities; the unconnected get the McJobs, whatever their abilities.

The professor remembers the lousy jobs he got as an English major with a business minor and a load of debt. He went to graduate school to earn a doctorate. Through luck, he found a tenure-track job; classmates weren’t so lucky.

She came to me for advice. I told her something like this: “A liberal-arts degree is the best preparation for life in general, but it helps if you also have some specific, marketable skills.”

. . . Whatever she does, is my former student not better off for having earned an undergraduate degree in the humanities? Isn’t an enriched mental life worth something? Her time will come someday, right?

All I have is an instinctive belief in the value of a liberal education without regard to its practical use. I am increasingly sure that it is wrong to encourage students (and indirectly ourselves) to justify the work and expense of education as a prelude to lucrative career opportunities. Yet I know that when so many students undertake so much debt to go to college, the link between education and future income becomes unavoidable.

A liberal education is undertaken at one’s financial peril, the professor concludes.

About Joanne


  1. I worked my tail off in high school and had a flurry of extracurricular activities, which won me a partial scholarship to a small, very good liberal arts college. I paid the balance of my tuition with loans and income from part time jobs. I did the same in grad school. Then I had to hunt for a job. It was a very insecure time. I didn’t get the job I wanted right out of grad school, so I paced myself, proved myself, grew my resume, and a few years later I landed my dream job. It may be anecdotal, but I am atleast one person who proves this professor wrong about needing connections to get anywhere in life. I had not one single connection assist me along the way. Hard work and patience is still the solution.

  2. THB isn’t wrong when he concludes that earning a degree in the humanities is financially risky, but I would add that anyone in *any* field who believes that a degree alone is the golden ticket is being foolish. English majors aren’t the only ones who need to buttress their college degrees with marketable experience and practical skills, and there’s a world of options between academia and retail that THB fails to take into account. Some of those options will entice the student whose liberal-arts education has endowed him not with mere book fetishism but with genuine imagination.

  3. Agreed. I have a B.A. in politics from a liberal arts school. Not exactly marketable. But I would not trade the strength of mind that I developed during those four years for anything! I am a huge advocate of a liberal arts degree. It does wonders for the intellect, both professionally and for how one approaches every facet of life.

  4. Steve LaBonne says:

    There’s an amazing and much less costly technology for getting a far better liberal education than many colleges offer nowadays (especially if their humanities departments specialize in bogus “theory”.) This technology is called a “library card”. Use of this technology is quite compatible with the simultaneous acquisition of marketable skills.

    (Of course it helps to live in a place like Northeast Ohio where nearly all public libraries have access to the stupendous collections of the Cleveland Public Library, one of the country’s great research libraries.)

  5. Sorry, I disagree. The structured, curriculum-driven classroom setting is highly advantageous. There is incredible advantage to having your ideas tested in a forum that includes other, equally intellectual, ideas. That setting solidified some of my beliefs and changed others. The challenge from professors and classmates is a powerful force. Moreover, a liberal arts education requires students to sample from an array of studies, giving them access to real resources (i.e. a chemistry lab) so they can engage in certain studies that they would otherwise neglect or be incapable of studying if left to their own devises.

  6. Steve LaBonne says:

    In favorable cases, I agree with you. Unfortunately, actual practice is often a long way from that idealized picture, even in “good” colleges. (With judicious course selection, a liberal arts degree is also compatible with the acqusistion of marketable skills, but students need better advice on this than they usually get.)

  7. Steve LaBonne says:

    But not, evidently, with acquisition of the ability to type accurately. 😉

  8. Well, like I said, my experience is only anecdotal, but I had a phenomenal experience in college because of judicious college selection, course selection, and fantastic professors. I had to figure it out as I went along, like most of my classmates, but who ever said the easy decisions were going to be handed to us? Risk of making the wrong decision is inherent in EVERYTHING. Once again, I fall back on “hard work and patience”.

  9. slimedog says:

    So what’s a degree in the sciences or engineering, chopped liver? Heaven forbid the liberal artistas should have to be like the techno-geeks and actually learn how to DO something!

  10. Just a clarification: I do not advocate vocational education in the column. I state that career-specific training is even more perilous than a general education. In the column I advocate a liberal-arts education (with the caveat that I understand why students, loaded with debt, are reluctant to do this because there are risks, particularly at the entry-level).

    My final point in the column is that I have to trust that students will find their own way without my ego-gratifying interference. Not that it’s easy for me to let go–or that I am certain that everything will work out for the best in individual cases.

    So, I don’t disagree with anything that was said above. It’s just that these are responses to excerpts rather than the whole column, which will be free later this week.

  11. No. not chopped liver, and perhaps you should study up on what a liberal arts education means before you spat like that. You can get ANY type of degree from a liberal arts school. Liberal Arts education means that while achieving your degree in a specialized field, you also must sample an array of other studies in order to graduate.

  12. Steve LaBonne says:

    I don’t classify a science or math degree and a “liberal arts” degree as opposites. Remember, the classical quadrivium consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. In later times, the name for what we call science was “natural philosophy” or sometimes simply “philosophy”.

  13. “I don’t classify a science or math degree and a “liberal arts” degree as opposites.”

    Agreed. A study of policy/philosophy will only strengthen your knowledge and ability in any given specialty. Biology? let’s theorize about natural selection (John Nash). Astronomy/physics? Let’s talk big bang, steady state, and zero moment (which came first, the laws of physics or the universe, or are the ynonymous?). Law? Let’s talk about all the sciences that the law seeks to regulate and then try to understand the policy reasons why Americans seek to regulate them (of particular import right now is stem cell research). Sciences and humanities overlap in every facet of our lives, practically and academically.

  14. That was supposed to say “or are they synonymous?” Seems I missed class the day they taught typing too.

  15. superdestroyer says:

    The author missed two other barriers to job entry into the US. The first is the use of digital job searchers. It is really hard to fit a liberal arts degrees into an electronic resume when all of the computer algorithims look for certain degrees and skills. The author also missed the need now for low paid/unpaid intern jobs to enter many of the fields (arts, journalism, NGO’s) that liberal arts majors have generally entered. How many people can afford after years of college to work for free for a newspaper, television stations, music company, private foundations, etc?

  16. Easily – with a part time job on the side. If you want it, you can make it happen. Just because you’ll be bringing in a pittance of an income for a couple of years does not mean you can’t make it work. Live within your means, go into financial hardship forebearance on your Stafford loans and make it work. I’ve lost track of the number of my friends that have done just that (one of them trying to make it in journalism even as we speak – she is so motivated, it’s impressive). If you choose a career with these kind of barriers to entry, you have to be prepared and develop a strategy for handling it.

  17. I can’t help but believe that part of the issue is simply a failure to plan… Many people go after degrees with the expectation that a great job awaits them after graduation… Depending on the degree and/or course selection, that may or may not be reasonable… Accounting, engineering, and education degrees would appear to open the door to obvious career paths… Things like journalism and math would seem to have obvious career paths, but with significant competition for few openings…

    I ask this question not to be rude, but because I honestly don’t know: If you begin college with the intent of earning a degree in English, psychology, or something similar, and have no plans of following up with a higher degree, what would you reasonably expect to do after you graduate..?

  18. Most people who got a B.A. in liberal arts and had no idea what to do with it did what I did:law school – the punishment for people who didn’t plan.

  19. Jane, I went to law school, too, and unlike some people, apparently, I actually intended to do so. Admittedly, it took until my junior year to discover that it was the logical next step for me, but it wasn’t because I didn’t plan or there was nothing else I could have done. It was not my “default.” I could have gone on to a Master’s program in either History or International Relations, but I primarily wanted to be out in the real world rather than permanently ensconced in academia (no offense to those here chose otherwise).

    In fairness, it was certainly clear that I had plenty of classmates who went to law school for your stated reasons–and I’m not casting aspersions on them for that–but I just felt it necessary to make it clear that those are not the only reasons people do so.

  20. lindenen says:

    “Let’s talk about all the sciences that the law seeks to regulate and then try to understand the policy reasons why Americans seek to regulate them (of particular import right now is stem cell research).”

    Huh? No one’s regulating stem cell research.

  21. This is laminated and in my wallet. My grandmother gave it to me in high-school.

    Press On
    There is nothing in the world that can take the place of persistence.
    Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
    Genius will not; un-rewarded genius is almost a proverb.
    Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
    Persistence and determination alone are all powerful.

    A variation of this philosophy has been espoused in one way or another by Edison, Westinghouse and many other successful people. Luck and sweat, more sweat than luck.


  22. Oh and if you’re just looking for a having your education broaden your “life experience” go apprentice in a trade, make decent money, and go to college just for the enjoyment of it. Yup, that would mean you could get a degree in liberal arts or philosophy and still make some pretty good wages.

    I’ve seen journeyman millwright positions in San Diego advertised around $35/hour, they make 25-40/hour at US Borax, and industrial electricians make even more.

    Good luck.

  23. Oh, and you can’t outsource such jobs to India or Korea. Turns out you actually have to be on site to change a lightbulb or laser-align a pump and motor.


  24. After the professor recovers from the shock of seeing one of his students making an honest contribution to the economy, he could drop the melodrama and consider that she might have a life beyond the cash register. I worked at plenty of unimportant jobs while chasing my dreams as a youth.

  25. Dave J – I imagine there are people who planned and wanted to go to law school. Still, I can’t help but think that if there were better career counseling at the front end (I don’t remember ANY at my high school), the world would have fewer lawyers. Most people would say that was a good thing.

  26. There are many things that impact one’s employability other than education and ‘contacts.’ For starters: persuasive ability, creativity, willingness to take risks, balanced judgment, reasoning ability. You can have two people with identical education and identical ‘contacts’ (or lack of same) who will have very different employability profiles.

  27. That, Jane, I would agree with entirely. It is undeniable that there are plenty of people in law school who are there solely because they don’t know what else to do with themselves.

    Q: What do you call the person who graduated last from med school?
    A: “Doctor.”

    Q: What do you call the person who graduated last from law school?
    A: “Your Honor.”

  28. Chris Haynes says:

    See Joanne Jacobs archives for Apr 24 2004
    “Liberal Arts: Who needs em”

    this thread has been done

  29. Anyone who can write well (whatever the major), can have a bright future. After all, it is all too rare a skill among today’s college graduates. The degree might not get you a great job right away, but at some point you should move beyond those without a degree who started at the same jobs. Assuming you aren’t an idiot!

  30. speedwell says:

    To Party Pooper Chris:

    If you had your way, the Internet would consist of every word in the English language written once.

    Dude, the dialogue changes over time, even if you assume the same exact participants debating the same exact events.

    Live with it.

  31. I also took my liberal arts degree to law school, intentionally. I was able to minor in the sciences (with a major in politics), and now with an added science background, I defend Architects and Engineers and other design professionals in professional liability claims and construction law. The ability to have a multidisciplinary career is often made possible by a liberal arts education.

    And Lindenen, federal funding for stem cell research was recently limited to only those cell lines already in existence and further federal funds are banned from being dedicated to researching any new cell lines. But more to the point, the federal government will eventually regulate many scientific endeavors (i.e. cloning people) for societal reasons, and my point was that it is advantageous to be someone with a grasp of both the science and the societal norms and policies that will seek to regulate, dictate, or otherwise set the course of development of those sciences.

  32. Oh, and Jane… all the world hates lawyers, right up until they need one.

  33. Steve LaBonne says:

    Of course the most common reason for needing one is that another lawyer is after you, so that’s a bit circular. 😉

  34. Don’t overlook the industries that don’t have corresponding degrees to go with them. Banking, for instance, is not a subject taught in school, although some skills usefull for certain aspects of banking are (finance, accounting, etc.). The vast majority of bankers start out without any advanced degrees, and by and large, their bachelor’s degrees are in the liberal arts. I know many people who started in banking as a teller with a B.A. and who worked their way up into management ranks.

    Or go into sales. That’s another industry that doesn’t have a corresponding degree.

  35. A former student of mine who works in mortgage banking told me that her major (history) prepared her well for her career. After reading medieval documents, financial documents were easy. 🙂

  36. That history degree required that she take classes that taught her critical thinking skills, how to be articulate, how to write well, etc. Even if the substance of the degree is never used by the student, the skills she developed while earning that degree will always be marketable.

    “Of course the most common reason for needing one is that another lawyer is after you, so that’s a bit circular. ;)”

    Circular, maybe … until you are the one who gets royally screwed and you have to sue someone. I am not “pro plaintiff” by any stretch of the imagination, but nonetheless sometimes a lawsuit is the answer. And hey, as long as our duly elected officials continue to regulate every corner of our lives into oblivion, lawyers are a necessary evil I guess. Long story short, I’m glad I took my useless lib arts degree to law school… it keeps me employed.

  37. Erin’s right. My student said the financial stuff was pretty easy to learn, and her analytical and people skills were better than those of the finance majors she worked with. OMMV

  38. Exactly. People skills are another set that often get overlooked. Unless you plan to be a hermit, you have to interract, no matter what your eventual employment. Also, sometimes the best way to learn necessary skills is through a medium you enjoy. She probably enjoyed history, which supplied the motivation and the attention span necessary to develop those critical thinking and people skills.

  39. I don’t know that people necessarily stop hating lawyers just because they need one. But I live in the state that is known for “jackpot justice.” Whenever I hear trial lawyers talk about how they do what they do because they care about the little people, I want to vomit. Yeah, and it just so happens that it pays handsomely as well. After clerking, my second job after law school was representing people on death row for $16,000 so don’t tell me how you are in it for the little people. A lot of lawyers deserve to be hated.

  40. I tell my students to major in what they love, as they’ll be more likely to go to class, work hard, and become educated.

  41. Well, it is true that 99% of lawyers give the rest a bad name. 😉

    Jane, I can safely tell you that I am a lawyer simply because I love the law. It intellectually facinates me and I am fortunate enough to possess a skill set that makes the practice of law enjoyable for me (I had tried my hand at biology for many years and finally had to realize that I just plain sucked at it and it was time to change directions). Do I litigate because I “care about the little people?” No, that just sounds stupid and I would laugh at anyone who said that. But I do care about my clients and try to do what is in their best interest, which most often entails talking them down from the fences and convincing them to act rationally.

  42. “And hey, as long as our duly elected officials continue to regulate every corner of our lives into oblivion, lawyers are a necessary evil I guess.”

    As an attorney for a state legislature, what exactly would that make me? An unneccessary evil? 😉

  43. Mad Scientist says:

    Granted, an education is what one makes of it. Unfortunately, for a lot of students undergraduate college is often viewed as a four-year extended party with breaks for going to beach resorts.

    My biggest gripe with a liberal arts education is that by and large, we truly have a society of scientific illiterates who go to law school and advise equally scientific illiterates on how to make laws.

    There is more to it than the cloning, stem-cell research, and nanotechnology. I’m talking about environmental rules and regulations (i.e., how much do we need to reduce a pollutant before we can consider it to be at a safe level). This is a big target of the enviro-wackos who believe that any detectable amount of a “dangerous” item is far too much.

    Look at the whole debate about arsenic in the drinking water straw-man used by the tree-hugging granola heads to demonstrate that Bush is anti-environment. Or Greenpeace; they want to ban chlorine. Or the nuts who want to eliminate coal from the energy mix. Or the loons who believe that electric cars and fuel cells will put an end to air pollution. Or the nut-jobs who believe that Kyoto is the cure for global warming.

    If those people leave science to the professionals, I would be happy for them to do whatever it is they do (as long as they do not interfere with my life and how I choose to live it).

  44. A liberal education has few marketable skills.
    Journalism/media is one of them.
    I can’t think of any others.

    While n hundred years ago, there was a concept that a good education had everything in it, that concept is outdated, due to the volume of human knowledge.

    If you feel like getting a job, study something “real”. If you feel like self-enrichment, get a liberal arts degree.

    If you are smart, you will get a marketable bachelors, with minors in a liberal art.

    Personally, I’m getting a BS in Computer Science, with minors in German and Mathmatics.

    Also, liberal arts majors are known for being flaky and disliking real study. Take that as you will- its the rep they have.