When we think of ways to make college more affordable and make degrees more valuable in the workplace, we don’t think about Chris Jones.
I mention Jones, an Indiana electrician, but there are many like him: People with degrees in the humanities making a good living in fields far from the subjects they studied in school.
Their stories matter because the bachelor’s degree, to put it starkly, is under attack. Many parents are skeptical, students are unsure, and some employers question the job readiness of graduates. The value of a bachelor’s degree is being questioned like never before. From a May 2023 Deloitte Insights report: “Attitudes about higher education are souring at a time when some states, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Utah, have stopped requiring a four-year degree for most jobs in state government.”
But there are other voices who rightly praise the value of the durable skills—communication and problem-solving among them—that many college graduates possess. Employers say this is what they prize most in degree holders, notably those with the broad learning fostered in the humanities.
Indeed, there is growing evidence that employers see value in a college graduate. A recent survey by the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that eight out of 10 hiring managers said a college degree is worth the cost and that college prepares students for life after graduation.
This brings me to Chris: He earned a journalism degree at Ball State University, a mid-sized state college in Muncie, Indiana, then worked as a reporter. As the media industry suffered economic reversals, Jones decided to move back to Indianapolis to be near his girlfriend, who would later become his wife.
Looking for stable employment and having an interest in home repairs, he looked up a highly rated electrical contractor in his city and asked if he could come for an informational interview. Before the interview was over and before Jones had decided to pursue the job, he was asked when he could start. Jones agreed to shadow an electrician to get a better idea of what the job was like.
“None of this was conventional to them,” Jones said. “They could tell right away that I came prepared.”
What stood out? Jones could follow directions and puzzle through problems on his own. “The next day, I got a call and they said, ‘Yeah, we’re just going to go ahead and put you on the schedule.’”
It’s easy to jump on the “college isn’t worth it anymore” bandwagon, but it’s simply not true. The fact is, a liberal arts degree—like the one Jones has—may pay lower than average initially, but the potential for growth is substantial—well beyond that offered by anything less than a BA. When I hear young students express doubt about the value of a college degree, I often say: “It isn’t about the first job you have, it’s about the last job you’ll have.”
“It was clear to my boss I was not a high school graduate who walked in right off the street,” Jones recalled. “He saw I had an aptitude—not for electrical work, necessarily—but for learning.” As time wore on, Jones continued to show his value.
“I’d be thinking all weekend about a particular job we were working on, and when I got to the job site, I had a solution to the problem,” Jones said. “I remember being in college and wondering why professors were making certain reading assignments or why I had to learn some of this stuff. Turns out those lessons were invaluable. I think that’s how you learn how to digest information and make smart decisions with that information—whether you are problem-solving or just trying to become a more well-rounded person.”
One of the biggest rubs about college is you’re often expected to declare a major early in your school career, sometimes the minute you step onto campus. It’s an unnatural and unrealistic expectation. For some, that might work fine, but most stumble around a bit, trying on some majors or searching for a better fit. Others change direction altogether before leaving college or, like Jones, shortly afterward. But that doesn’t mean the degree isn’t worth the cost or the time.
Economics Professor Dick Startz of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in a piece for the Brookings Institution, recently made a similar argument. He said a liberal arts degree is about creating a better-equipped, thinking society, one that can take on the world’s problems and find solutions. In other words, its value comes from more than a paycheck.
One of the biggest problems in trades is finding someone who can work independently. “Some of the guys stop every five minutes to ask a question,” Jones said. “It slows everything down. They saw I didn’t do that because I knew how to find the answers to problems through troubleshooting.”
In the last seven years, Jones says his responsibilities and income at Jefferson Electric of Indianapolis have grown—from installing solar systems to bidding on complex jobs. “My degree has helped me climb the ladder.”
His story, and the many others like it, show that college graduates make great hires because of the wider knowledge they accrue while in school. A bachelor’s degree often sets the stage for an inquisitive, motivated life.
This approach might not work for everybody, but the idea of combining a humanities degree with specialized skills has become a key interest of many employers—finding smart, flexible, problem-solving employees.
And what do college graduates get? A career they can count on.
This article was originally published in Forbes.