Hailey Thiem relishes art museums, so it was natural that she would follow her passion through college.

But since getting bachelor's and master's degrees in art history from Creighton University and the University of Kansas, the road has been bumpy. Thiem, 28, knocked around for three years after earning her graduate degree.

"Looking for jobs is so hard," said Thiem, who hoped to work in an art museum. "And I think sometimes it can be disheartening."

Concern over career prospects and money has spurred a decline over the past 20 years in the number of liberal arts degrees being pursued by college students. The rising cost of higher education has put students on high alert to the connection between college and career.

Thiem performed secretarial duties, tried accounting and worked in insurance. She found a job with Girls Scouts but feared there wasn't potential for growth. Thiem also worked as a bartender and still does, one night a week.

She has driven down her student loan debt from $72,000 to $43,000. And last year she found a job with Patreon in Omaha, an international company that brings artists together with patrons online and enables them to get a steady income so the artists can produce art. It's not exactly an art museum and it doesn't maximize her degrees, but she likes it.

"I am so happy there," she said. "I definitely feel that I've kind of found my footing."

The liberal arts are designed to give students a broad understanding of the world and the human condition, but students increasingly seek majors that are likely to land them a good job.

Engineering, for instance, is much hotter than English as a major field of study in American universities. The term mentioned repeatedly in higher education today is STEM, which stresses the importance of science, technology, engineering and math.

Many new graduates feel pressure to get in the workforce and start earning money. Some fear being stuck with large student loan debts while working in temporary assignments or coffee shops immediately after graduation.

Census data analyzed by David Drozd at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research showed the following: Nebraskans under 50 working full time with at least bachelor's degrees in literature, visual arts and liberal arts earned a median yearly wage of $46,317.

That compared with $59,660 for those with business degrees and $74,338 for those with degrees in engineering, computers and math.

Students have taken note. Nationwide, according to the most recent data, the number of students getting bachelor's degrees in engineering increased from 58,209 in 2000-01 to 115,640 in 2016-17. In English language and literature, numbers over the same period dropped from 50,569 to 41,317.

But some experts in business and higher education contend the communication and analytical skills learned in the liberal arts — history, philosophy, English, fine arts, political science, psychology and others — are more valuable now than ever in the business world.

In an age of increasing artificial intelligence and technology, the dean of arts and sciences at Creighton University sees plenty of demand for human skills. Machines can't interact, create, think critically, adapt or imagine, Bridget Keegan said.

"We need to figure out things that machines are bad at," Keegan said. "Those are things nurtured by liberal arts."

Studies, surveys and salary comparisons provide a hodgepodge of results, and it's easy to cherry-pick the desired result. But findings suggest that liberal arts degree winners generally won't compete in the marketplace with engineers and computer scientists.

A study released Tuesday by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, however, found that many graduates of liberal arts colleges catch up and surpass others over time.

The study looked at incomes by college and university, and some liberal arts colleges also have engineering, business and computing degrees. So it's not a strict comparison of degrees. Further, two-year and for-profit colleges are among the more than 4,000 colleges that 210 liberal arts colleges are compared against.

But the study gives liberal arts colleges and majors hope. Martin Van Der Werf, an associate director of the Georgetown center, said the study at least indicates that many liberal arts graduates are more imaginative and driven than vast numbers of students in many other kinds of colleges.

Merritt Nelson, a Midland University vice president, said his liberal arts college in Fremont has career-focused majors, including business, education, nursing and criminal justice. But the foundation at Midland involves liberal arts.

"We're teaching them how to be critical thinkers. How to solve problems. How to be a good team member," Nelson said. Alexander Law, an English major at Midland, said he hopes to write for a living. The senior said the near future, though, is hard to predict. "It is a world of uncertainty," he said. "There is always that lingering doubt."

He has a friend in the lucrative field of petroleum engineering, and that puts a certain pressure on Law. He also is considering graduate programs, the law and the military.

Nicole Abbott, a psychology major at Bellevue University, said she would like a nice house and neat car someday as evidence of success. But what she would like most is to help kids who have gone through foster care, as she has.

Abbott, a sophomore, said she thinks a psychology degree will open some doors and enable her to advocate for kids.

"Well, you're not going to be able to do everything with a psych major," she said. Abbott currently is taking a class at Bellevue University called Careers in Psychology, which might provide other job and career ideas.

Abbott hadn't thought much about going to college, but advisers at Bellevue West High School and Bellevue University told her that she could contribute to society in a big way. "I'd say the light bulb went on about four months before I graduated" from high school, she said. Law school is another possibility, she said.

Cornhusker Bank Executive Vice President Sherla Post said she's looking for graduates who are good with people, have had internships and other experiences, and have been leaders on, say, the debate team or a sports team.

Just having a finance degree or straight A's is not enough. "We kind of just look at what they've done," Post said. "And a lot of it comes down to the interview."

Ann Tschetter, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln history professor and adviser, said those teaching liberal arts "are going to have to step up a little more and help students understand" how they might use their liberal arts degrees in a career.

In a course Tschetter teaches called The Historian's Craft, she asks her students to attend a career fair, meet with a UNL arts and sciences career coach, and make a résumé.

Liberal arts students must take responsibility by considering career options, taking on internships and possibly adding a minor or major, she said.

As for being a history professor, Tschetter said, it's not advisable right now to get a doctorate in history due to a lack of good faculty jobs. Colleges typically have directed their attention and funding in the past few years toward things like business and engineering, she said.

But critical thinking, writing, speaking and analytical skills are vital in the workplace, she said, and liberal arts generally provide those. She tells students if they're in the major that is right for them, they will find a job and career.

Charles Klinetobe, who has a doctorate in history, had hoped to be a professor or mid-level manager at a college. But he has found only adjunct professor jobs in Omaha. An adjunct is a part-time, temporary faculty member without tenure protection. For several years, he has been an adjunct at UNO or Metro Community College or both.

His wife, Kimberly, has worked as the family's primary earner, and her job provides them with health insurance. "It's been terribly frustrating," he said. If he had it to do over, he said, he would major in history but would add prelaw classes or international studies to his academic experience.

Getting a tenure-track history professorship, he said, is like hitting the lottery.

Hailey Thiem said she could have been more aggressive in searching for an art museum job. She should have had internships and networked more, she said. She shied away from moving to New York City, a place with many art museums, because it would have been risky and expensive.

She would have benefited from a class that set out career options and effective ways to get jobs, she said, if such a class had been offered. Today her full-time job and bartending work together garner between $35,000 and $40,000.

But she wouldn't change her major from art history. She still loves art museums.

rick.ruggles@owh.com, 402-444-1123

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