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What Does Liberal Arts Mean?

Find out what does liberal arts mean.

Emilie Le Beau

March 09, 2009

What Does Liberal Arts Mean?
Insects and people. Crop sciences. Cinema studies. What do these things have in common? All are classes taught in liberal arts and sciences colleges. Many students aren’t clear about the liberal arts and sciences—and why majoring in liberal arts may be advantageous to their careers. Most universities have a college of liberal arts and sciences that offer a wide range of degrees, from English to engineering. “A college of liberal arts and sciences offers any major, usually,” says Regan Ronayne, a consultant with Directions To College.

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Some universities call their liberal arts and sciences schools Letters and Science, or Arts and Science. Regardless of name, the vast majority of liberal arts and science programs offer students a chance to obtain a degree while taking a wide variety of courses. At the University of California-Berkeley, for example, a student can major in computer science through either the College of Letters and Science or the College of Engineering. “Same department, same major, but they are two different degrees because they are offered through two different colleges,” Ronayne says. The engineering degree through the College of Letters and Science, for example, will likely require more classes in language, history and literature. Meanwhile, the engineering degree from the College of Engineering will not require as many classes in the social sciences, Ronayne says.

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Besides engineering, students can also go through liberal arts and sciences programs to earn degrees in physical sciences such as biology or chemistry. Ronayne says liberal arts and sciences degrees are advantageous because they expose students “to other aspects of life.” “Life is liberal arts. [Students] are headed out for life; they won’t be 100 percent sitting at a computer,” she says. “If they are going to go anywhere with their careers, they will have to have those people skills.” Carol CostonPart of those people skills can come from a well-rounded education that “makes you a more interesting person,” says Carol Coston, director of college advising at Morgan Park Academy in Chicago.

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Coston regularly meets with students who want to be pre-law or pre-med majors and who think they need to pursue a biology or political science undergrad degree. Instead of seeking a biology degree that requires a heavy course load of math and science, Coston recommends students consider earning their degree from a college of liberal arts and sciences. “It’s an opportunity to explore history, philosophy, psychology—your basic liberal arts and science courses—rather than getting into a track where they have to take specific courses that train you for a career,” Coston says. Many pre-law students assume political science is the only option that interests law schools. “To go to law school, you can major in anything. You want to be a good writer and have good communication skills,” Coston says. Coston says you should consider the type of law you want to practice and use your undergraduate degree to set yourself apart from the competition. Students interested in a career in patent law, for example, can major in engineering. A biology degree can be helpful to a student considering a career in medical malpractice law. An undergraduate language degree like Spanish or Polish can be beneficial to an immigration attorney, Coston says. Coston says medical schools expect students to take the math and science requirements, but then students can also explore other majors. “They are looking for people who have a broad base of knowledge,” she says. Liberal arts and sciences is also a place where a student majoring in fields such as art, dance or fashion can take business classes, too. “Some of the careers are so hard; they are so competitive,” Coston says. “I think (students) need to develop other skills in case they don’t become Michael Kors.” Where can a liberal arts and sciences degree lead? Here’s a list of fields that hire liberal arts and sciences majors.
  • Advertising: For jobs in marketing, promotions or public relations, employers prefer applicants with a broad liberal arts background and a degree in sociology, psychology, literature, journalism or philosophy.
  • Law enforcement: FBI special agents need a foreign language degree to qualify for the language program. CIA language instructors also must have a foreign language degree. Police officers may find it helpful to have a foreign language or physical education degree.
  • Education: All U.S. states require public school teachers to be licensed. Teachers must have a bachelor’s degree and complete a certification program and student teacher training. A graduate with a degree in chemistry can complete a post-graduate certification program to become a high school chemistry teacher.
  • Finance: Most employers expect personal financial advisers to have a degree in finance, math or economics. Securities, commodities or financial service sales agents benefit from degrees in economics or finance.

MAJORS What exactly are the majors within liberal arts and science colleges? Perhaps it’s easier to ask what majors aren’t available. Here’s a list of the included majors, straight from a real college. (We used the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).
  • Actuarial science
  • Anthropology
  • Astronomy
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Classics
  • Comparative and world literature
  • East Asian languages and cultures
  • Economics
  • English
  • Finance
  • French
  • Geography
  • Geology
  • Germanic languages and literature
  • History
  • Integrative biology
  • International studies
  • Italian
  • Latin American studies
  • Linguistics
  • Mathematics
  • Mathematics and computer science
  • Molecular and cellular biology
  • Psychology
  • Religious studies
  • Rhetoric
  • Russian and East European studies
  • Russian language and literature
  • Sociology
  • Spanish
  • Speech communication
  • Statistics
  • Statistics and computer science

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