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Weigh an Online Liberal Arts Bachelor’s Degree

Many online bachelor’s degree programs cater to working adults. That’s why some emphasize more professional or industry-specific subject areas, such as business, health care, information technology and management across fields.

But some experts say students shouldn’t automatically rule out an online liberal arts education.

“You learn writing skills and thinking skills and reading skills – so unlike, say, a degree in nursing, where you’re channeled to one particular career, a liberal arts degree is a foundation for many careers,” says Susan Welch, dean of liberal arts at The Pennsylvania State University, including Pennsylvania State University—World Campus, where around 4,500 students are currently pursuing liberal arts disciplines as their majors.

Luis Cabrera, a 2016 college graduate from Southern New Hampshire University, turned to online education after retiring from a job at a communications company in New Jersey. The 51-year-old wanted the flexibility to study where he wanted, when he wanted, since he intended to ultimately shift career fields.

He decided to major in history, he says, primarily because it was a lifelong interest.

“I’ve always been a history enthusiast. The reason why I chose the liberal arts is because it would open a lot of doors for me in the employment world,” says Cabrera, who is now a bilingual social studies high school teacher. In addition to him passing a state-licensing exam, the bachelor’s qualified him for the role, he says.

Still, for others students – especially those who are set on switching to a specific career field or job role – a professional degree may be the best option. But that decision typically shouldn’t come down to career goals alone, even though these are a major factor, says Craig Swenson, president and CEO of the for-profit, online Ashford University.

“That determines, to some degree, their own choice,” he says. “But there are people who don’t want to take a business degree, for example, and want to study something else. And if they have a passion for something else – I don’t think that it much matters.”

He adds, “My opinion has always been that businesses, companies can train people to do specific jobs. But what they need are people who have the skills often that come from a liberal arts degree – the ability to think deeply and thoughtfully and analyze to evaluate, solve problems.”

Gregory W. Fowler, chief academic officer and vice president of academic affairs at Southern New Hampshire University, says some students may want to consider an online degree program where they complete both liberal arts and more professional-oriented online coursework before committing to a major.

At UF Online, the online undergraduate arm of the University of Florida, many liberal arts online courses incorporate experiential learning, referring to gaining knowledge through direct professional experience, says Evangeline Cummings, director of the online college and UF’s assistant provost.

At the same time, prospective students should also look into whether a professional online degree option has a liberal arts requirement or component, since many do.

“Our message to every student, including online students, is that liberal arts degrees are, in fact, profoundly career-focused and that our mission in teaching and advising is to really help our students be prepared to be successful in whatever career they want to pursue,” says Joe Spillane, associate dean for student affairs in the college of liberal arts and sciences at UF Online.

Schools such as Ashford University also offer a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts in general. Though this bachelor’s may qualify students for certain roles, it can be an ideal route for someone who wants to learn and earn another degree more for personal fulfillment than professional gains, Swenson says.

Prospective students also have plenty of other ways to mix the two types of classes in online programs. One 2014 study from the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that more than half of employers want to hire candidates with both field-specific skills as well as the wider range of knowledge and competencies they can attain through the liberal arts.

Some experts recommend that career-focused online students interested in a liberal arts bachelor’s degree take at least a few courses in professional field or even minor in that area. Another option: major in a liberal arts subject and pursue a certificate or another smaller credential in the more job-focused field.

Experts advise prospective students to research what types of credentials or other options potential online programs offer

Increasingly, people are going to be able to pick up those business skills that they want in much smaller increments and to stack those and put them together and almost customize a skill portfolio,” says Swenson from Ashford University.

Prospective online students may want to check what types of career and academic services are available for online students in a liberal arts versus a more professional online bachelor’s degree, experts say. Cummings, from UF Online, adds that the academic adviser is key in helping students navigate their course choices and scheduling.

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