The one thing everyone seems to agree about when it comes to college is that it costs a lot of money. Beyond that, everyone’s got a different idea about whether it costs too much, how it should be paid for, what you should major in, and if it’s even worth it. Some people do fine without a college degree and some regret having gotten one, but statistically speaking, you’re more likely to have a job if you have a college degree than if you don’t.

As a college professor and aspirationally provident person, I know quite a bit about colleges and a decent amount about making good financial choices. In this series, I’m going to try to demystify college a bit by shedding light on some of the aspects of higher education that don’t really get discussed with enough clarity in the gloom-and-doom student loan articles, or in the predictable encomiums encouraging everyone to be a STEM major or just drop out and start a tech company.

So if you’re unsure what you want from a college education, don’t know where to go to get what you want, or aren’t sure how to make the most of your tuition dollars once you get there, your in the right place.


Part I: Know the Difference Between a Vocational Degree, a Professional Degree and a Liberal Arts Degree

Not all college degrees are the same. For one thing, there are a lot of different letters you can end up with: AA, BA, BS, BFA, JD, MD, PhD, EdD. That’s only a few. But in addition to denoting different things, different degrees serve very different purposes, and it helps to understand the difference before you start earning yours.

Vocational degrees

“Vocational” means relating to occupation or employment. Vocational degrees are explicitly intended to prepare you for a specific occupation. You can get a vocational degree from a technical school, or an associate’s degree from a two-year college. Jobs that you can prepare for with a vocational degree include a number of medical-support careers like registered nurses, dental hygienists and medical technologists, as well as technical trades like plumbers and electricians. You can also become a nuclear technician or an airline pilot with a vocational degree. And finally, you can train to be a computer repair specialist in a vocational program, so if depending on the kind of computer work you want to do, you may not need a four-year computer science degree.

Many for-profit colleges offer vocational degrees. I’ll address for-profit colleges later in the series, but in general, you should look to public community colleges or non-profit technical colleges for a vocational education. They will be much cheaper than a for-profit option, and generally provide a better education.

Professional degrees

Professional degrees are the fancier cousin of vocational degrees. They also prepare you for a specific career or profession, though they generally offer training in a broader field, rather than a single specific job. Many professional degrees are at the master’s level: JD, MBA, MSW, MLIS, etc. There are, however, some undergraduate degrees that essentially function as professional degrees. These include bachelor’s in engineering, architecture, computer science, and other applied sciences.

Pre-professional degrees are generally undergraduate degrees in career areas that usually require a master’s. These degrees theoretically prepare you to earn a graduate-level professional degree after college. You can get an undergraduate degree in business, for example, but employers will not see that degree as necessarily better than a degree in economics, political science, or some other liberal arts field. This is because an undergraduate degree in business is very different from a professional MBA, which is recognized as the standard professional degree in the field. And you don’t need an undergraduate degree in business to get an MBA–in fact, some schools see those degrees as less rigorous and desirable than a degree in the social sciences or even the arts.

If you want to get an undergraduate professional degree in engineering or an applied science, you will likely need to attend a university rather than a liberal arts college. It need not be a large state flagship or a research-1 university, though. Regional universities will have large enough engineering and science departments that they can offer bachelor’s degrees in applied sciences. Liberal arts colleges, on the other hand, will not have graduate programs and will likely not have the resources for programs in the applied sciences, though there are exceptions.

Liberal arts degrees

Most bachelor’s degrees are liberal arts degrees. They are not intended to prepare you for a specific job or career, but rather to give you a thorough general education and help you develop skills that you will be able to use both in the workforce and in your life more generally. The “liberal” in “liberal arts” means “broad” or “wide-ranging,” not politically left-leaning. Liberal arts degrees were traditionally for people who didn’t need their education in order to get a job–rich people, in other words. You didn’t go to Harvard in the eighteenth century so that you could become an I-banker. You went so that you could become a more educated and cultured gentleman.

In some ways, the history and mission of a liberal arts education is snooty and elitist. If you needed to earn a living, you’d get a vocational education and become a tradesman. If you were a gentleman and above the sordid business of money-making, you’d get a liberal arts education. But the liberal arts education of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is much more accessible than it used to be, and for many people, there’s a great value in being educated as a person, not as a future worker. Your education is a large part of who you are, and you are a great deal more than simply an employee. As such, your education should help you become the person you want to be. It should help you be a better citizen and human, and that is the primary goal of a liberal arts degree.

This doesn’t mean that liberal arts degrees leave people unprepared for the job market. A liberal arts degree should provide you with concrete and useful skills, particularly the ones that are generally referred to as “soft skills.” These include communicating effectively in both writing and in person. I’ve known a lot of engineers, and the ones who made it into management were always the ones who could write an email that didn’t leave the reader scratching their head. I’ve also had a lot of engineering students tell me my class is a waste of time because they don’t need to be able to write. I imagine they have all been sorely disappointed when they got their first jobs and discovered how many memos and reports they’re responsible for.

Liberal arts degrees also teach critical thinking. You don’t just learn a process and then follow it until you get it perfect. You learn how to analyze and evaluate a process and decide whether it makes sense. If it doesn’t, you learn how to come up with a new process and evaluate it. These skills are invaluable, and they can be applied to any undertaking. The critical thinking skills that help you as an analyst or a technical writer (or an engineer) will also help you learn to repair stuff or sort out your household finances.

Employers consistently cite these soft skills as among the most desirable. And in fact, one of the biggest problems of pre-professional programs like undergraduate business degrees is they spend too much time on professionalization that’s of dubious use (because you’re still going to need an MBA) and not enough on soft skills and the ways they can be applied across the board and not just in professionally specific situations. With some thoughtful planning, you can make good professional use of your liberal arts degree (yes, even the much-maligned English degree).

Clearly, I’m a big fan of a liberal arts education. But I also know it’s not for everyone. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is getting the wrong kind of degree for you and being saddled with student debt for something it turns out you didn’t want or need. Later in the series, I’ll have advice for how to develop important skills and experience to augment the broader education you get from your liberal arts degree, but if what you want is a clear pipeline from classroom to graduation to job, then you should look into a vocational or professional degree. If you want an education that gives you space to figure out what kind of person you want to be as well as what kind of career you want, then a liberal arts degree is a great choice.

Next time: Know the difference between your major, your skills and your work experience