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The cons of a liberal arts education

Published: October 5, 2012
Section: Opinions


their anxious senior moments waiting to hear from the state schools in the area. I was the only person in my friend group to leave the Midwest and one of three people in my high school to go to the East coast. The most recent senior class followed suit with only four out of 350 seniors heading off to the Northeast. The Midwest is not known for sending kids to small, private liberal arts colleges. Seniors in Midwest high schools prefer moving out of their parents barns and into the local state university, which are surrounded only by hick towns and corn fields. There are, however, a few good reasons to defend their choices.

I applied to Brandeis for the opportunities that it offered. I had the chance to spend a semester in Europe, something my friends from home still dream about. I go to pop stars’ concerts, see world-renowned ballet and walk through movie sets all in the comfort of my own backyard. But having Boston next door doesn’t necessarily mean that my $200,000 was invested wisely. Large universities offer tracks, or curriculums and classes set out for you to achieve within four to five years. Tracks, in turn, give students a group of required general courses that secure their backgrounds in basic sciences and mathematics and then thrust them forward into a well-proportioned group of electives based on their interests and job aspirations.

Students come out of a track education with a firm background and usually an idea of where they want to go in life, and the experience and education to get them started. If a girl from my graduating class attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison with the intent on becoming a physical therapist, she’ll take a group of generals in math, biology, chemistry, physics and anatomy. After her first year-and-a-half, she’ll start taking electives that focus on a well-rounded education in PT. When she graduates from college, she’ll secure an internship at a hospital because she had the experience and instruction that qualifies her for the position.

The same is not necessarily true for liberal arts graduates. I plan to major in environmental studies from Brandeis. By the time I graduate, I will have taken a handful of science classes loosely based on the environment, one math course, a few Spanish classes short of fluency, a large number of classes on topics I don’t plan to pursue in my future and a group of environmental electives based on everything from governmental roles to organic farming in Boston. When I emerge from graduation I will walk into an environmental conservation corporation to present my resume, I will take the last chair that is left in the waiting-room full of liberal arts grads that think they have what it takes to make it in the real world. I won’t have the background, the generals or the basics. I won’t have the track and I won’t be hired.

Finding work with an environmental studies major is simple compared to the difficulty of finding a job with some of the other popular majors at Brandeis. I send all my luck to those of you who are planning to major in sociology, peace and coexistence studies, romance languages, English, anthropology and psychology. Nowhere else is there a place where you can triple major in three different paths to unemployment. The likelihood that you will have trouble finding a job out of college is enormous. Considering the economy, the job market and the baby boomer generation picking up the scraps, I want the best possible outcome for the time I am putting in.

Yes, the ability to take a diverse group of classes that have nothing to do with a future career is one of the appeals of a liberal arts college. Many people wouldn’t have chosen Brandeis without the opportunities to take experiential learning courses in Jericho forest and Zipcars to Harvard for classes in lost African languages. And risk is an important part of college. The risk of not finding a job in something you like by aiming for a career in something you love is part of a liberal arts education. But maybe the payout of spending all of that time and money in a class you find interesting but not fulfilling isn’t worth the price.

The cost is a major factor here, and one I purposefully saved until the end. I believe that you should follow your dreams, and that money should not hinder great people from great ends. But I have to point out that four years at the University of Minnesota is roughly the cost of one and a half years at Brandeis, and if Minnesota can place me in a paying job, on my way to achieving a career in four years and with only a fourth of the cost of a liberal arts degree, my choice seems pretty clear. For those students who have massive student loans, government grants and scholarships, is it really worth all of that debt to spend your time majoring in theater arts when you can be guaranteed a job in nursing or accounting?

If your college experience means choosing something you love and potentially sacrificing your future, it’s your burden to bear. A good education may prepare us for the future, but it’s up to the individual to determine his/her own meaning of ‘good.’