Shannon Fitzpatrick, like many students who enter their first year of college, had no indication of what to major in. But the University of New Hampshire (UNH) senior will graduate this spring with a dual communication and business degree, and a refined career path.
During the fall of 2016 as a first-year student, Fitzpatrick was among 1,145 other undeclared College of Liberal Arts (COLA) students at UNH, according to the university’s Institutional Research and Assessment.
“I came into college as an undeclared student and I was very unsure of what I wanted to major in,” she said. “I took classes in many different subjects to explore.”
The exploration process helped her realize that a degree in communication would yield many different career paths. Taking a wide variety of courses also allowed Fitzpatrick to pursue a dual major in business.
According to data from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), employers value candidates who have broad knowledge in liberal arts.
“80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, all college students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences,” the study states.
The online survey was conducted in 2014 by Hart Research Associates on behalf of the AACU. It was sent to over 400 executives at private-sector and nonprofit organizations who had at least 25 percent of new hires who hold an associate or bachelors’ degree.
The study also found that 91 percent of employers agree that for career success, “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major.” These skills are taught to liberal arts majors from the beginning of their college career.
UNH English Professor Brigitte Bailey, strives to implement critical thinking and guides students to become flexible thinkers who work independently. With 32 years under her belt at UNH and currently serving as a faculty fellow, Bailey has noticed patterns in how liberal arts students and graduates change in mental reasoning and understanding of subject matter throughout college.
“The idea is that, liberal arts students can move into a territory that isn’t mapped out and give shape to it,” she said. “That education forces students to formulate a task and make some coherent meaning of it. Doing that over and over again makes you think hard about the world.”
Liberal arts students take dozens of classes that focus on forming questions, researching and creating meaning behind an idea. “Students create order by paving forward with insight,” Bailey said. “[They] know things they didn’t know before, and think in ways they haven’t before.”
COLA is the largest college on campus, and it is important that those students have opportunities to make connections in the professional world and refine their skills. Opportunities for career planning for any student at UNH is guided by Career and Professional Services (CAPS).
CAPS in COLA is run by Raul Bernal, who says the ultimate goal of CAPS is to help students navigate their time at UNH for post-graduate life and find careers that line up with their skills, interests and values. Tools available to students include: resume reviews, mock interviews, building a professional network – including reaching out to alumni and helping students discern what they want to do with their major.
CAPS also offers career classes specifically for COLA students taught by UNH English alumnus, Jonathan Constable. In COLA 400, students focus on the mechanical tools of finding a job, such as defining a resume, or building their LinkedIn bio. COLA 500 is a career exploration class that’s aimed at researching different career paths for COLA graduates.
Once graduates are equipped with the tools for success, they go on to find a job. According to the 2018 First Destination report, 71 percent of COLA graduates landed a job within six months of graduating and 22 percent are enrolled in higher education, percentages that are average to other UNH colleges. But, about 37 percent of COLA graduates possessed a job that was directly related to their major, the lowest percentage of all colleges at UNH.
This percentage begs the question – where is everyone with a liberal arts degree going?
Bernal elaborated on this percentage, explaining that COLA is the lowest because there are multiple different fields in which liberal arts graduates can find themselves in.
According to a list provided by the COLA website, potential careers include teaching, advertising, public relations, banking, business/finance, sales and work for non-profit organizations, among others found on the list. That list is just one example to many other professions “available.”
“Looking historically at COLA and liberal arts, the majors that you’re in don’t line up nicely with the industry,” Bernal said. “It’s easy for nursing or engineering to find their career path. For liberal arts, they have the core foundational skills to do anything. Maybe not related to their major but they’re drawing on skills they’ve learned from their degree.”
Bailey said many people who graduate with a liberal arts degree find their passions elsewhere because of their broad studies.
“What often happens with liberal arts students… [is that] they cast around and see where their skills can be of use and where they can go using those skills,” she said. “There is a lag in recognizing the skills you develop, and the most difficult thing is to distinguish your skills and value the importance of them.”
Fitzpatrick is planning on “casting” around her skills to different employers starting next semester to prepare for graduation.
“The job search has begun,” she said. “I am hoping to get into the fitness, fashion or music industry for communication/marketing. I’ve had two internships and will graduate with three under my belt so I’ve had some real world experience which has helped me figure out what I enjoy and what I do not.”
With skill sets that Bernal and Bailey describe, there are lots of pathways for graduates to explore – even extreme examples such as large companies whose executives hold liberal arts degrees.
In a Washington Post article by Vivek Wadhwa, his research team at Duke and Harvard surveyed 652 U.S. born CEOs and found that more than half held a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.
“YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki, for instance, majored in history and literature; Slack founder Stewart Butterfield in English; Airbnb founder Brian Chesky in the fine arts. And, in China, Alibaba chief executive Jack Ma has a bachelor’s in English,” Wadhwa wrote in the Washington Post.
In the report ‘How Liberal Arts and Science Majors Fare in Employment,’ data was conducted and collected by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2010 and 2011.
“These files include information related to the education and occupation of about three million US residents between the ages of 21 and 65 who hold bachelor’s degrees and work in a wide array of professions,” it states.
The data also shows there is a pay gap, specifically people who just graduated (ages 21-25) versus peak earning ages (56-60). As a person increases in age, so does their pay rate. For humanities and social sciences alone, this median wage increased from $26,271 to $66,185.
Equipped with the tools and foundational knowledge, Fitzpatrick represents many initial undeclared COLA students who are trying to figure everything out.
“I know my skills from my classes will aid me no matter where I go,” Fitzpatrick said. “Coming into college with an open mind allowed me to find my passion in communication. [And] being able to write, speak and communicate with the world are skills that will help me anywhere.”