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Post-College Success Not All About the Money

A broader look at liberal arts graduates’ futures
University Business, March 2013

To demonstrate more accurately the financial worth of college degrees, at least six states in 2012 explored the use of databases to publicly disclose income levels of graduates in specific fields. Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education brought its initiative to fruition in the fall through its Wage Outcomes Report, which provides information about the immediate employment/salary experiences of alumni who remain in Virginia after graduation. The report shows clearly that Virginia’s higher ed institutions have a profound, positive impact on the commonwealth and its citizens—and demonstrates that a degree still matters.

But prospective students and their families anywhere in the nation should be wary of using only information about salaries just after graduation when choosing a school or major. If, as has been demonstrated, recent grads will not just change jobs, but careers, as many as seven times in their lives (and many will hold jobs that don’t yet exist), they must have the communications, critical thinking, relational, and creative problem-solving skills that the liberal arts provide. Research has shown that graduates of our many outstanding liberal arts colleges may not have the highest-paying jobs right out of college, but they occupy president/CEO positions in disproportionately high numbers later in their careers.

Also, some graduates, including many who attend liberal arts colleges and universities, make career choices for which money is not the biggest consideration. They have embraced the wonderful perspective of former Barnard College (N.Y.) President Judith Shapiro, who said, “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” Finding a vocation to match their passions or personalities is their priority, and as a result they may happily engage in performing valuable work at jobs whose importance is not measured by the pay scale. What’s more, some of the most accomplished, prominent liberal arts instituions’ alumni first went to grad school or served in entry-level jobs before finding the opportunities that propelled them to new levels of success, and pay.

Long-Term Success Prep

The focus of the liberal arts is providing the skills and knowledge for a lifetime of careers. Graduates are empowered to assume positions of leadership and able to keep up with a rapidly changing work force. They play an active role in a democracy that needs its citizenry to be well-educated about the issues of the day and participate in public debate. At Hollins University (Va.), our alumnae network includes typical success stories, such as:

  • a 2000 graduate with history and classical studies degrees who went on to Vanderbilt (Tenn.) Law School and is now partner in a firm practicing consumer financial services litigation 
  • an economics major from the class of 2004 who now works as a brand manager and develops marketing strategies for a company specializing in long-term health care and home health

Liberal arts colleges are committed to providing students with effective career mentoring. For example, during Hollins’ inaugural Career Connection Conference last October, more than 50 alumnae shared with students how they translated their liberal arts education into powerfully satisfying careers. The conference shared internship opportunities that can provide the hands-on experience so crucial to landing that first job.

A Solid Track Record

Americans can take tremendous pride in the graduates that our institutions of higher learning, both public and independent, are producing. Whether they are choosing higher-paying positions in the private sector, employment in the nonprofit or public sector, or volunteering, our graduates are making a difference.
Liberal arts colleges will continue to play a vital role in educating citizens to make lasting contributions to our economy and society. We must remind students and families who may overlook or discount the advantages of our institutions that they may be passing up opportunities that can lead to a lifetime of fulfillment, service, and—yes—financial success.


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