What Is Liberal Arts? A Complete Guide to Liberal Arts Degrees and Careers

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What Is Liberal Arts?

Liberal arts refers to a variety of academic disciplines centered on humanistic inquiry. It includes the humanities, social sciences, arts, and natural sciences. Often, the connecting principle among liberal arts subjects is an understanding of human nature and creation.

Popular degrees in liberal arts include English, communication, political science, foreign languages, music, history, sociology, and design.

A liberal arts education teaches valuable soft skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication. Liberal arts students develop an ability to analyze culture, assess world issues, and lead others.

Liberal Arts Colleges vs. Art Schools: How Do They Differ?

Liberal arts colleges provide a more traditional college education, with a well-rounded set of foundational courses and a variety of degree options.

These colleges tend to value interdisciplinary thinking, encouraging you to explore different fields of study so you can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the world.

Liberal arts colleges typically offer dozens of majors in the humanities, social sciences, and arts. Some well-known liberal arts schools include Amherst College, Williams College, and Swarthmore College.

Art schools, by contrast, specialize in providing education and training in fine arts subjects like painting, sculpting, photography, and graphic design.

These schools aim to hone your technical skills through practical training in their chosen fields. Courses focus on producing creative work, learning from professional artists, and developing your craft.

Some popular art schools include the Rhode Island School of Design, Pratt Institute, and California Institute of the Arts.

What Types of Liberal Arts Degrees Are There?

Liberal arts degrees can be divided into four distinct fields: humanities, art and design, social sciences, and natural sciences.


A humanities degree focuses on the study of human culture, history, language, and society. It encompasses a wide array of subjects, including philosophy, literature, history, anthropology, and religious studies.

Humanities degrees typically require you to engage in critical analysis, research, and writing.

The terms “liberal arts” and “humanities” are often used interchangeably, but it’s worth noting that the humanities are just one part of liberal arts. Humanities specifically focus on understanding the ways in which humans have communicated and interacted with one another throughout history.

Humanities degrees require strong critical thinking, research, and writing skills. These majors can prepare you for careers in fields like law, education, journalism, and public service.

Sample Humanities Degrees

Art and Design

Common art and design degrees include fine arts, graphic design, photography, performing arts, and animation. Depending on the degree program, you may learn about design principles, color theory, digital software, or creative problem-solving.

Art and design students will also develop a professional portfolio to showcase their skills to potential employers.

Fine arts degrees typically focus on traditional art forms, such as painting, sculpting, and printmaking. Graphic design degrees focus on digital design, web design, branding, and advertising. Finally, performing arts degrees focus on acting, directing, musical performance, and technical theater.

Many students interested in arts degrees attend art school for specialized and technical training.

Social Sciences

Social science degrees involve the scientific study of human society, behavior, and relationships. Majors include sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics, political science, and geography.

Students in social science programs aim to understand and explain human behavior and social interactions using research and data analysis. You’ll develop research and analytical skills and an advanced historical knowledge of your field.

While the humanities seek to understand human culture, the social sciences aim to understand how humans interact with one another and their environments.

Natural Sciences

When you think of science programs, your mind likely goes straight to the natural sciences. Physics, chemistry, astronomy, and environmental science are all examples of natural sciences (also called physical sciences).

Natural sciences involve the scientific study of the physical world. Students in natural sciences programs develop research, experimentation, and data analysis skills.

Math degrees are also part of the natural sciences. These programs teach you about mathematical concepts, theories, and methods.

Like science degrees, math degrees fall under both the liberal arts and STEM umbrellas.

Sample Natural Sciences Degrees

Explore Graduate Liberal Arts Degrees


Why Accreditation Matters for Liberal Arts Degrees

College accreditation is a valuable way to ensure the quality and legitimacy of your education. When a school or program is accredited, its curriculum, faculty, and resources have been evaluated by a third party.

In order to receive federal financial aid, you must attend an accredited school. Accreditation is also important to qualify for professional licenses in fields like nursing and law. Certain employers may also require that you attend an accredited school.

Legitimate accreditors are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Liberal Arts Careers and Salary Outlook

The median annual salary for liberal arts majors was $50,000 in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). But because liberal arts can refer to a vast array of careers and industries, the salary potential for graduates can vary significantly.

Art careers in fashion, music, and the performing arts may fall on the lower end of earning potential, for example. In contrast, science and tech-related careers typically earn above-average salaries.

If you value a high income, consider top-paying liberal arts careers like physicist or astronomer — together, these professionals earned a median annual salary of $147,450 in 2021.

One of the fastest-growing liberal arts jobs is statistician, with a projected job growth of 33% between 2021 and 2031. Other in-demand liberal arts careers include web developers, dancers and choreographers, interpreters and translators, and biochemists and biophysicists.

Fast-Growing Liberal Arts Careers
Job Median Annual Salary (May 2021) Job Growth Rate (2021-2031) Minimum Education Required
Mathematicians and Statisticians $96,280 31% Master’s
Web Developers $77,030 30% Bachelor’s
Dancers and Choreographers $19.47 per hour 27% Varies
Interpreters and Translators $49,110 20% Bachelor’s
Biochemists and Biophysicists $102,270 15% Doctoral
Film and Video Editors $62,680 14% Bachelor’s
Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers $50,120 12% Master’s
Postsecondary Teachers $79,640 12% Doctoral
Agricultural and Food Science Technicians $44,700 9% Associate
Photographers $38,950 9% High school diploma
Actors $23.48 per hour 8% Some college, no degree
Physicists and Astronomers $147,450 8% Doctoral
Public Relations Specialists $62,800 8% Bachelor’s

Source: BLS

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a liberal arts degree good for?

A liberal arts degree is good for developing a broad set of skills that can prepare you for many in-demand careers. Soft skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and adaptability are all cornerstones of a liberal arts degree and can serve you well in a variety of industries and roles.

Graduates become well-rounded individuals qualified for careers spanning the arts, the humanities, business, law, education, science, and healthcare.

Do employers care about liberal arts degrees?

Most employers value liberal arts degrees for the analytical thinking, creative problem-solving, and communication skills graduates gain.

Liberal arts graduates also tend to work effectively in diverse teams and understand complex social and cultural issues.

Some employers may prioritize technical skills or specific training for certain positions, depending on the career. Your ability to articulate how your liberal arts degree has prepared you for a job will be a key factor in securing employment.

Do art jobs pay well?

Art jobs can pay well, but how well will depend on the job and industry.

Some art careers, such as graphic design and advertising, can pay relatively high salaries, whereas others, such as freelance fine artists and performers, may bring home more variable incomes.

Factors like experience and location can affect how much you earn. Ultimately, pursuing a career in the arts may require some sacrifices regarding financial stability. Still, it can be incredibly rewarding for those passionate about their work.

What are the highest-paying liberal arts majors?

The average salary for a liberal arts major can vary significantly depending on the job and industry. Some degrees, like economics, political science, math, biology, and astronomy, may command higher average salaries.

Is a design degree worth it?

Whether a design degree is worth it for you will depend on your goals and interests. A design degree can provide you with valuable skills for a creative career, from graphic design to product development.

It’s important that you consider factors such as the cost of the degree, the job prospects in the field, and your level of passion and interest in design. If you’re unsure about your chosen career path, it may be worth gaining experience through internships or self-directed learning before committing to a design degree program.