By Brett Youtsey
As a chemistry major at Willamette, getting strange looks when I tell people what I study is common. Why on earth would I be studying a hard science at a liberal arts college? Shouldn’t I be reading poetry? My answer to these questions is simple: why not both?
Whenever first meeting people, the topic of conversation for college students quickly shifts to school. The question of major can be a source of pride, or dilemma. STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) majors at liberal arts colleges have the tendency to feel the latter. This is an unjust feeling. Studying STEM in a liberal arts setting is an asset, not a liability.
STEM education in liberal arts avoids being locked into a single career path. For many who don’t have specific career aspirations, a STEM major is a safe choice for the future. It offers good job prospects after college and appeased parents. But as many soon realize, STEM is not for everyone. Coming to terms with the fact that you’re in the wrong major is difficult, and it is even harder to realize this when your exposure to other departments is limited. The consequences of liberal arts’ more interconnected approach to education makes students less likely have tunnel vision about their futures.
Liberal arts colleges have a greater safety net for STEM undergraduates than state schools. In a 2014 study, The Council of Independent Colleges found that the average graduation rate for STEM degrees in private non-doctoral colleges was 62 percent, as opposed to public non-doctoral institution’s graduation rate of 41 percent. What the findings indicate is that smaller private institutions tend to be more forgiving environments for students. Liberal arts colleges generally offer greater academic support for each student, and for difficult areas such as STEM, this can be decisive.
The increased graduation rates would not be worth much if liberal arts colleges could not produce successful scientists and mathematicians; however they do. 20 percent of elected members in the National Academy of Science were graduates of liberal arts institutions, despite representing only three percent of all college graduates in a study from Nobel laureate Thomas R. Cech. The academy plays the critical role of scientific advisor for the federal government. There is little surprise that liberal arts graduates would be disproportionately represented in this organization.
Liberal arts provides comprehensive training in soft skills that can be lacking in STEM. All those annoying essays, group projects and presentations today pay off in the future. In a 2016 NACE job outlook survey of employers, communication, problem-solving and delegation skills consistently outranked technical knowledge as desirable traits. The diverse skillset liberal arts institutions provide can easily be applied to STEM with great success.
Liberal arts is a different kind of education, and whether or not it’s better or worse depends on the person. Places like Willamette provide an environment where people can explore without worrying about being pressured into narrow roles. There is plenty of time for specialization in post-graduate and employment. Undergraduate education is the time build foundational skills that are valuable no matter the field. Pursuing a STEM degree in the liberal arts does not close doors, it opens them.