The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

Written by Robbie Adler

Earlier this semester, I wrote an article about the resurgence of vocational schools in the U.S., and the high payoff for students graduating with a technical degree that prepares them for work in a skilled trade. There is certainly a benefit to this perspective, and for a generation that is growing up in a time of relative economic anxiety, there is increasing pressure to make sure that college is worth the investment, in dollar terms. In today’s economy, is there any value that remains for a general education in the liberal arts? The answer is yes, quite a bit.

As cost of tuition rises steadily, the value of an education is now a major concern for college students and their families to an extent that it has not been in the past. According to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, 85 percent of this year’s incoming first-year students report that getting a better job is “very important” in their decision to attend college. This is 14 percent higher than before the economic downturn in 2008. Not surprisingly, degrees in fields such as engineering and business, as well as enrollment in two -year vocational schools, have been rising in popularity; the humanities, meanwhile, have taken a hard hit. Degrees in the core disciplines of the humanities have dropped to 6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2014 (these peaked at 17 percent in 1967). In response to telling people that my major is History, I have become used to the question “what are you going to do with that?”

This is indicative of a gradual shift in the view of the purpose of higher education. Focus is moving away from the pursuit of knowledge and acquiring a greater understanding of our place in the world, in favor of specific career training.

Many politicians have touted that the economy cannot support any more liberal arts majors. Florida Senator Marco Rubio stated that “we need more welders and less philosophers”, and Kentucky governor Matt Bevin has advocated for decreasing public funding to liberal arts degree programs. But this perspective is short-sighted, as well as misguided. For one, employers want candidates who can think and write well, and adapt to different circumstances, which are skills that receive heavy focus in liberal arts programs. According to a 2014 study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “4 out of 5 employers surveyed believe that students should be broadly trained in the liberal arts, and 93 percent of employers want candidates who can communicate well and think critically.”

Further, advocates of the liberal arts point out that this type of broad education is what helps create responsible, creative, and well-rounded citizens. Humanities and social sciences graduates are far more likely than their business and engineering peers to work in the fields of education and social services, which are jobs that are integral to the moral and economic well -being of society. And for those worried about post-graduate payoff in dollar terms, numerous studies have found that liberal arts graduates close the income gap with their science and business peers, and by peak earning ages (50-60 years), actually earn an average of several thousands more. In addition, unemployment for those holding liberal arts degrees drops over time to be near equal that of those with professional or pre-professional degrees.

So for all the immediate payoff of a career -oriented path of study, consider the value of getting a liberal arts education in broader terms. You will probably end up contributing to society just as much as the alternatives, and you might even make as much money too.

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