There’s nothing wrong with examining, and defending, the utility of a liberal arts education

Higher education has been on defense in recent years, and liberal arts colleges especially. It seems like everyone from politicians to editorial writers to financially-concerned parents of high school students ask whether college is worth the investment. Liberal arts colleges, with their small class sizes and their focus on a broad education rather than a laser-focused technical job preparation, are especially suspect.

Even President Obama dissed the liberal arts when he reminded one audience that “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” And when Obama criticizes you and Republicans don’t immediately rush to condemn his statement and lift you up as a hero, you know you have some defending to do.

The problem is, however, that many who champion the liberal arts as a superior form of education have seemed reluctant to do so. Particularly, they don’t want to talk about the economics of a liberal arts education.

They will tell you that the numbers do add up and liberal arts graduates fare well in the job market. And they have studies to back it up. But some seem to cringe when that is the focus. However, as a graduate of a liberal arts college and an advocate for liberal arts education, I believe a discussion of the utility, including the economic utility, of liberal arts is crucial to helping people realize the value of what the liberal arts offer.

One example of reluctance to discuss is the economic utility of the liberal arts is the recent excellent essay by St. John’s College President Christopher B. Nelson, published in the Washington Post. He argues that “the lens of economics distorts our judgment about the true worth of higher education” because economics is the science of scarcity. In economics, the value of a commodity goes up when it is scarce, and it becomes scarce if it is shared around too much.

“The things that matter most in education, though, do not fit this paradigm,” he writes. “They are not scarce, and yet they are extremely valuable—indeed they are among the most valuable in human life. They do not become scarce by being shared. Instead, they expand and grow the more they are shared.”

These “things that matter most in education” that he mentions include knowledge and maturity. And it’s true that these are not and will never be scarce resources. (Although some may argue that knowledge can be pretty scarce at times.) Other facets of a college education that share this trait include critical thinking skills and the ability to work with others with different backgrounds. It’s true that we cannot put a price tag on these things. They are infinitely valuable, yet they are infinitely available to those who seek them.

However, just because these key outcomes of a college education cannot be measured economically, economics are inseparable from the discussion because of two related facts:

  1. Professors and classrooms and dorm rooms are scarce and are not free.
  2. Money is scarce, so when you charge $50,000 for attending a school to pay for the scarce resources mentioned in #1, people can only analyze that through economics. “Can we afford that? Is it worth that?”

One reason that liberal arts colleges can afford to let the discussion move to economics is because the answer to “Is it worth that?” is yes. Here are a few key reasons:

  1. Liberal arts colleges are less expensive than you think. Thanks to generous financial aid, many students pay much less than the sticker price; meanwhile, declining state allocations for public colleges has narrowed the gap between the price of attending a public university and the price of attending a private, liberal arts college.
  2. The invaluable outcomes of a liberal arts education, which Nelson eloquently explains, are the very things that employers want and need most in their workforce.
  3. Your major is not your skill set. Liberal arts students have skills that allow them to work in technology, the financial sector, government, and more. An Inside Higher Ed article to which I linked earlier points out that “Graduates of arts programs, while not all employed in the arts, are generally employed and have high levels of job satisfaction, using their arts knowledge in a range of ways.” Majoring in a liberal arts discipline does not close doors to career success.
  4. Outside the career benefits, the outcomes of a liberal arts education are useful in citizenship, family life, community service, and leadership.
  5. Liberal arts colleges don’t necessarily forego career preparation. Many (including the one where I spend 40 + hours a week) have excellent internship programs that give students real-world, hands-on experience that builds career skills and sometimes leads directly to job offers.

Last month, St. John’s College hosted a conference to discuss the conversations around liberal arts education. One St. John’s official said “The liberal arts are in no way incompatible with a life and work that is satisfying and productive.” I wholeheartedly agree.

When people discuss whether the liberal arts, or college education in general, have any usefulness, the advocates of the liberal arts have a pretty good case to make. We can make that case with confidence because experience and data both show that the value of the liberal arts is anything but scarce.