Thinking Like an Investor... About the Liberal Arts

If you think of a college education as the stock market, what are the "value buys," what are, to paraphrase Warren Buffett, the "companies" with strong fundamentals and long track records that other investors are overlooking?

Today's conventional wisdom often shouts at students to select vocational majors such as accounting, nursing or business because, so the surveys say, that's where the jobs are. The bigger question isn't where the jobs are, though, it's where they're going to be. And, if you're going to spend $200,000 on tuition, you want to prepare for a lifetime of employment not just a first job.

Thoughtful investors take the long view on the market, recognizing that you measure value by long-term utility, not the rise-and-fall of the daily ticker, and thoughtful students do the same. In the "economy of ideas" of today's college experience, facts are cheap. The abilities to recall detail or stay on top of trends may once have mattered, but they're less valuable skills when anyone with a smart phone can do them.

Instead, the old blue-chip abilities to read carefully and write clearly are even more valuable in the Information Age. The average person has roughly seven different jobs in a lifetime of employment; the skills may change in each of those, but you can be certain the fundamentals of reading and writing will be crucial in every case.

The liberal arts in general, and the humanities in particular, are the best majors for learning and polishing those essential skills of analysis and communication. You can learn them elsewhere -- by all means study accounting if you know you want to be an accountant -- but nowhere else gives you either the same focus or the same depth. Nowhere else prepares you for so many of the opportunities that will open up in the changing economy of the next five decades.

In other words, if you're going to invest in yourself (or your child) look to the fundamentals, not the flash. Here's a quick "balance-sheet" scan you might consider when you try to measure what one major offers over another: how many separate writing assignments are you likely to have? If it's English, Philosophy or History, it's pretty high. If it's something vocational, something training you for a particular job right out of college, it's generally lower.

The short-term investor might prefer a low P/E (Pages of Effort) ratio; after all, looking for sources, re-reading old material, writing drafts and rewriting take time away from learning new things. But thoughtful students know -- even as they complain about the work -- that analysis and writing are how you build the infrastructure for doing the work you'll be called upon for the rest of your life.

Vocational majors can, and often do, ask you to research and write the problems of their fields. They're designed to do so more narrowly, however. You can become a journalist or a newscaster if you study Communication, for instance, but the style of writing you learn in that curriculum transfers less easily to other fields than the reverse. You have a good shot at regular employment as an R.N. if you major in nursing, but you're less able to move into another line of work if you've chosen the major only because you like the hiring prospects in 2018.

Choosing a vocational major is the equivalent of betting big on a single bio-tech stock rather than diversifying your portfolio. If you guess right -- if, as a 20-year-old you predict the person you'll be at 50 -- then you've beaten the market. If you guess wrong, though, you're left with holdings that aren't worth what you paid for them.

The best liberal arts educations prepare you to prepare yourself for the jobs that follow. That often means further education -- medical, law or business school, for instance, and sometimes on the job training -- but that later professional education depends on the broad skills of your undergraduate years. Talk to recruiters for those schools and they will tell you time and again they look for students with the broadest and deepest educations.

When it comes to positioning yourself for a future no one can predict, there aren't any guarantees. As you invest in your education, you can look short-term at the majors hiring in three to five years or long-term at the ones that have served our best-educated thinkers for the last several generations. You can play the next hyped I.P.O. of a "cutting edge field" or you can turn to the traditional blue chips of the humanities and liberal arts.

It's a tough decision either way, and it depends most deeply on how you feel called upon to work in the world. As you make your investment, though, think beyond tomorrow's or even the next decade's returns, and try to keep in mind the market of your entire life.