First, some definitions. Harvard College explains that “in [a] liberal arts program, students are broadly educated in the social sciences, the natural sciences and the humanities.” So while that does include fine arts, it also covers history, physics, sociology, and English, and much more. The vast majority of people I’ve interviewed for When I Was 17 have received liberal arts degrees, like Brittany who majored in applied mathematics, or Sari who majored in economics and sociology, or Blaine who majored in Latin American studies. In fact, the vast majority of colleges in the US primarily offer liberal arts majors.
A pre-professional program is one that leads directly to a profession (although it may require an advanced degree). This includes pre-med tracks, where you can officially major in anything but you have to complete certain prerequisites for medical school. Nursing, physical therapy, and pharmacy are other common pre-health programs. Engineering and computer science are especially popular pre-professional degrees right now. And to some extent, business degrees like marketing, accounting, and finance fall into this category.
Both types of degrees come with pros and cons. A liberal arts major can feel like a big question mark after you graduate, without a clear arrow pointing you toward specific jobs you should apply to. But that openness can benefit you in the long run, giving you the flexibility to pursue fields that are just emerging, or even starting something of your own. Many of the biggest names in business, tech, and politics hold liberal arts degrees:
- Cory Booker, Senator from New Jersey – political science and sociology
- Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo - symbolic systems (a combination of philosophy, cognitive psychology, linguistics, and computer science offered at Stanford University)
- Elon Musk, Tesla + SpaceX – physics and economics
- Barack Obama – political science, international relations, and English
- Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook - economics
- Howard Schultz, Starbucks – speech communication
A pre-professional degree can lead more directly to a lucrative and stable job right out of college, which is something many parents are understandably more comfortable investing four years of college tuition for. But if the industry changes and your work becomes automated or outsourced, you may have difficulty pivoting to something new with a narrower, more specialized degree.
Ideally, you’d be able to study whatever you love and then turn that into a satisfying career where you make enough money to live the life that you want. But in real life, you’ll probably have to make compromises in your major or your profession depending on your priorities and goals at that time. The best advice I can give is to stay open and flexible, take initiative to get involved with things that interest you, and make the most of the opportunities that present themselves. Whether liberal arts or pre-professional, basket weaving or data entry, those things will always lead to professional success.