Valuing the Liberal Arts

By Jonathan Giuffrida
Image: Manybits/Flickr

Image: Manybits/Flickr


My land, the power of training! of influence! of education! It can bring a body up to believe anything.

So speaks the narrator in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a classic satire set in the Middle Ages, and a book often included in courses at liberal arts colleges. By placing a modern man in medieval England, Twain explores the vast gulf between our romantic ideals of the age and the brutal and dirty reality, and provides a vehicle for understanding our relationship with the past.

Today, between the liberal arts and the technical fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) yawns a similar abyss, being pointed out by many journalists, educators, policymakers, and commentators. At the extremes of the debate, some view liberal arts (which I will try to define below) as a leisurely stroll through the garden of ideas that students burdened by debt and a harsh job market can ill afford, while others say that liberal arts education fosters critical thinking and other abilities that cannot necessarily be judged according to a price tag. This question of value is at the heart of the debate over the liberal arts. And yet, the two sides talking at the extremes of this “STEM versus liberal arts” debate are essentially talking past each other. In a very real sense, the struggle to understand why so many Americans continue to pay enormous sums of money for a degree that may not recoup their investment gets to the heart of the questions embroiling the world of higher education in this country.

To understand the contemporary why and how of liberal arts requires an understanding of the history of American higher education—namely the knowledge that traditionally “liberal arts” has always included training in quantitative and scientific “STEM” fields as well as the humanities. Both terms tend to be ill-understood in the ongoing debate, but a crucial distinction appears to be not what is studied, but the relationship between the breadth and depth of study. A STEM education is typified by a student who studies civil engineering from the minute she steps on campus to the minute she graduates. That is, a STEM education is characterized by singular focus on technical, “job-ready” fields, which could be true of students at technical institutes, state schools, and research universities. The liberal arts, in contrast, could be represented in that student’s roommate, who explores courses in English, biology, and economics before majoring in any one of them (or even civil engineering). Thus a liberal arts education may include the humanities, the social sciences, and the quantitative and natural sciences in any proportion—as long as it includes most or all of them over the course of a college education.

It’s important to note that while some schools clearly favor one model of education over the other, it seems that both types of education could really exist at any institution, and the choice between them is up to the student. The prototypical student at a large public university, who could go either route, is perhaps the one to whom we should really be speaking.

The two sides talking at the extremes of this “STEM versus liberal arts” debate are essentially talking past each other.

Both types of education have their paradigms: the liberal arts in the classical education favored by America’s founders, and STEM in pure vocational and technical schools such as in Europe. The liberal arts may be characterized by a breadth of subjects, but in fact they are not so much a particular collection of courses as a mindset about how to put them all together: “not so much learning itself as the spirit of learning,” as Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States and president of Princeton University, put it. President Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia, listed the components of a liberal arts education:

Classical knowledge, modern languages, chiefly French, Spanish, and Italian; Mathematics, Natural philosophy, Natural history, Civil history, and Ethics. In Natural philosophy, I mean to include Chemistry and Agriculture, and in Natural history, to include Botany, as well as the other branches of those departments.

Jefferson’s approach became the basis for a liberal arts curriculum, and was reflected in the degree requirements at many liberal arts schools that force students to take at least a few courses in a wide variety of fields as part of their degree.

Image: Peter Rosbjerg/Flickr

Image: Peter Rosbjerg/Flickr

In contrast, American STEM programs, broadly defined, look more similar to higher education in Europe—where students often choose their concentrations while still in high school, are tested in them to gain admittance to college, and study them to the exclusion of nearly everything else—than to liberal arts programs that may co-exist on the same campus. Some researchers find that students in Europe consistently best American students in academic preparedness and preparation for the workforce, and point to the European system of studying a single subject from high school on as a prime reason.

This higher education scene, with such stark differences between the two approaches that compete for the same students, resembles a tinderbox waiting for a match—and if that match was not thrown in the 1990s, with the massive change brought about by technology, then the whole field was certainly doused with kerosene and ignited by the Great Recession in 2008. We are beyond a tipping point in how we talk about higher education. Members of Congress and governors are denouncing the snobbery and uselessness of traditional educational models, while visionaries like Peter Thiel in Silicon Valley publicly award scholarships to talented students not to waste four years attending college but to go straight into entrepreneurship.

Despite this, it’s pretty clear that higher education is more necessary than ever for an increasingly complex and competitive society—and yet a meaningful education is further out of reach of ordinary Americans than ever. Since 2000, wage growth has been nonexistent or negative, while college costs have nearly quintupled in real terms in the past 30 years. As a result, student loans have picked up the slack—and weigh in at $1.2 trillion, far more than credit card debt—and unexpungeable in bankruptcy. The issue is front and center in the ongoing Democratic primary race and top of mind for many Republicans as well. And yet it is becoming harder to rack up this debt at a good university, as the most prestigious ones become much more competitive. Northwestern University has seen its acceptance rate plummet from 33% in 2005 to just 13% in 2015, while the most elite schools like MIT and Harvard accept students at half the rate they did ten years ago. (Some of this is driven by students responding to tighter admissions by applying to many more schools, fueling a vicious cycle—but not making it easier for any given student to go to university.)

It is certainly true that those advocating a more practical and financially sustainable education have a point, and that liberal arts have done a lousy job of defending themselves.

In response to these very real market pressures, some question the value of a liberal arts education at all, when a student could take straight math and sciences courses at a technical or vocational school for less cost and land a higher starting salary. Florida Governor Rick Scott famously told anthropologists to avoid his state: “I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering and math degrees.” The chorus supporting STEM education over the liberal arts may be overhyped; it is much easier to find columnists defending the liberal arts than dismissing them. But it is certainly true that those advocating a more practical and financially sustainable education have a point, and that liberal arts have done a lousy job of defending themselves.

In fact, much of the criticism of a traditional liberal arts education, which has become synonymous with a “humanistic” education, comes from within the academy itself. Students, professors, and those paying for college are tired of focusing on the “dead white men” of the Western tradition. Accusations of cultural imperialism lead colleges to stray perhaps too far into relativism, which then sees students taking courses—such as “Queer Gardens,” an exploration of LGBTQ horticulture offered by Bowdoin—that look even less “useful” to skeptical parents than the French and botany of Thomas Jefferson’s time. These trends are also driven by increasing academic specialization by professors and researchers, so that a student could take ten different courses in American history without once touching the 20th century.

At least we hope such a student would know that, until the middle of that century, an education such as hers was generally off-limits to all but the same white men who were the exclusive object of study. The opening up of higher education to everyone able to afford it is an unequivocally good thing, even if it bares the traditional canon to scrutiny on racial, sexual, and cultural grounds. However, it also means that the same schools that used to cater only to students who were already well-off now need to provide a solid boost to disadvantaged students’ earning potential—and it is not clear that many courses offered at liberal arts universities, taken alone, can do that. The fact is that when you measure the life earnings of various majors and types of degrees, the investment in a liberal arts education appears to be a poor financial decision compared to STEM.

Suppose we consider going to college as a financial investment, just like putting money in the stock market. The stock market may be risky, but over the long run it is certainly a good investment: since 1984, it has returned an average of 8.25% in profits per year after adjustment for inflation. We can use a similar model to look at the return on investment (ROI) of a higher degree that, for an up-front investment, increases one’s lifetime earnings substantially.

Bloomberg Businessweek commissioned the data company PayScale to calculate the value of going to any one of one thousand five hundred colleges. They started with the difference between the average salaries for a college graduate and a high school graduate over a thirty-year career, and adjust that for actual graduation rates (to reflect that many college students never graduate but keep the debt). Then they factored in the cost spent on education, including all the usual dollar costs—tuition, fees, housing, books, etc.—as well as the salary not being earned while the student is out of the full-time labor force for 4–6 years.

In this analysis, how does a liberal arts education fare against STEM alone? Not very well. When we group all schools identified by PayScale as having a special focus on the liberal arts (including the Ivy League), the average ROI for the cost of attendance is only 4.5% per year. Even with a large amount of financial aid, this only rises to 6.7%, or quite a bit worse than simply placing that money in the stock market. Schools that focus on engineering, science, and technology, on the other hand, have an ROI about 3% higher. (In the absence of adequate salary data specific to major, comparing these two types of institutions is a good way to understand the value of a purely technical vs. non-technical or balanced education.)

Over the course of a thirty-year career, this translates to $747,000 in additional earnings for the average graduate from an engineering school over a liberal arts school. This is what is referred to as the crisis of the liberal arts. Even if college is, in fact, a sound investment relative to others you could make, it’s certainly true, all else considered, that an engineering college is a much sounder investment than a liberal arts school. (Of course your choice of major matters, but students often choose their school before deciding on a major.) If you’re the first in your family to go to college, how could you justify choosing a liberal arts university or a liberal arts education on financial grounds?

Humanists and those who defend the liberal arts often counter this argument by talking about all the intangible benefits of a liberal arts education, but they rarely engage the financial math—and that’s a mistake, because this “average” experience depends on a lot of assumptions that don’t provide concrete answers to many of the real-life questions or choices students themselves face. Questions such as: do I go to the expensive private school or the cheaper (and often just as valuable) public school? What about how long it takes me to graduate, and whether I work a part-time job or work-study program? What if I want to do something less lucrative but more service-oriented out of college, such as enlist in the military, join the Peace Corps, or work for Teach For America? And, most importantly, what if I want to double major, design my own major, or get several minors?

Over the course of a thirty-year career, this translates to $747,000 in additional earnings for the average graduate from an engineering school over a liberal arts school. This is what is referred to as the crisis of the liberal arts.

The assumption is often that we should take a graduate with a degree that says “Chemical Engineering” and one whose degree says “English,” see what jobs they take out of college, and compare those salaries. And this is clearly inadequate accounting that does not account for the myriad of experiences available to recent graduates, or the fact that many do not go on to work in the profession most closely associated with their degree (e.g., become an English teacher with an English degree), though that is a common assumption.

The choices of how data gets calculated matter as well. In fact, Bloomberg Businessweek published a handy visualization alongside its rankings that lets you compare no fewer than eight different ways to calculate ROI. You could say that any given college is the best investment of your life or the worst investment of your life—and depending on how you calculate the numbers, you’d be right both times.

Regardless of how uncertain any ROI calculation is, it is clear that choosing a liberal arts education over a STEM education can seem quite costly to individual students and their parents. To respond to financial arguments such as these, liberal arts administrators and humanists often bring up the qualitative benefits of a broad higher education—elements that cannot be easily quantified but which often include statements along these lines: A liberal arts education fosters a “love of learning” itself: a student “learns how to learn”. It encourages “tolerance of cultural ideas”, mindsets, and backgrounds. These curricula make students more aware of how all disciplines are strongly “interconnected” while encouraging “creative thinking and expression.” And especially this one: Liberal arts study builds “critical reasoning skills” and an ability to weigh “multiple perspectives” to arrive at a solution.

To my mind, many of these arguments smack of hubris. The ability to look outside oneself and appreciate others’ points of view is not peculiar to any course of study. Scientists and engineers routinely debate each other about the mechanisms of biological functions or how to interpret the results of experiments in a spirit of collaborative inquiry. Practitioners in STEM fields use critical thinking every day. We can debate the accuracy of an ROI metric, but liberal arts education is a massive investment that needs to document its supposedly massive returns, or the market—parents, students, and private and public funders—will stop paying for it. So what are the specific, tangible benefits of a liberal arts education that are worth so much?


Image: Kim Dombrowski/Flickr

To help understand this question, I talked to one person who has spent her entire career thinking about this problem: Shirley Tilghman, a pioneering molecular biologist who served as the president of Princeton University from 2001 to 2013, exactly a century after Woodrow Wilson. In her public speeches and commencement addresses she has repeatedly tried to elucidate the value of the liberal arts in a quickly moving and competitive world. In contrast to many in the public sphere, she is quick to acknowledge that the liberal arts cannot claim to be the best model for higher education. “There is a tremendous variety of higher education in the United States, and that’s a good thing,” she told me. The crux of the matter for Tilghman is what happens after education.

“A liberal education is designed to prepare you not for one profession,” she told an audience at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey in 2010, “but for any profession, including those not yet invented.” In this, she echoes Woodrow Wilson’s statement that “the processes of [a liberal] education … are intended to put the mind in such training that it can do anything with itself that it pleases.” The economic changes wrought by the Great Recession, as Tilghman described to me, are so profoundly damaging to the aspirations of Americans that even a solid education cannot lead to professions that guarantee “rich, fulfilling, and secure lives. For all the talk about higher education being a driving force in the economy, the hollowing out of the middle class makes it look like a highway with no off-ramps.”

This, for Tilghman, is the central promise of a liberal arts education: that it prepares a student for whatever the future may bring, including professions that are currently unimaginable, just as a career in software development might have been unimaginable to that student entering college in 1984. “The notion that each major in a liberal arts education is narrowing your prospects to a very small number of things,” she says, “is just wrong. The majority of math majors at Princeton do not go on to be mathematicians.” In a way, then, while a STEM education is modeled after the jobs available today, a liberal arts education strives to stay relevant decades into the future, when its graduates will be deep into their careers. This helps to explain why liberal arts schools and programs usually require students to take classes in a broad variety of fields and create interdisciplinary fields of study: not for the sake of vague ideas about a “love of learning,” but because a graduate will likely have to reimagine her career years down the road, and exposure to different ways of thinking during the formative years in college can serve as a storehouse of knowledge.

A degree in a specific STEM field, such as petroleum engineering, is only valuable for as long as that field exists in its current form; when we move away from fossil fuels, it may be worth very little. A liberal arts degree, by contrast, even one in a STEM field, offers some hope of being able to withstand the forces that buffet the economy without the student having to pay for another degree. It is a hedge against risk, against the unknowable future. And that is valuable.

Those who push for greater quantification of the value of college degrees want to compare the impact of one life choice versus another. We have looked at some of the metrics and measurements to demonstrate impact, which have their shortcomings; fortunately, impact can also be observed in other ways, especially when we remember that a student’s education does not take place in, nor prepare her for, a vacuum.

“A liberal education is designed to prepare you not for one profession, but for any profession, including those not yet invented.”

As Woodrow Wilson pointed out, “It has never been natural, it has seldom been possible, in this country for learning to seek a place apart and hold aloof from affairs”—a statement that continues to be true given that the vast majority of public leaders in America hold college degrees. Proponents put the liberal arts forward as an answer to this calling by pointing to their utility in training students to continue filling the ranks of public leadership. A 2013 editorial in Inside Higher Ed argued that dismissing the humanities in favor of STEM fields “weakens America domestically” because the humanities are crucial for a functioning democracy. In conversation, Tilghman adds, “The best public servants are not going to be narrowly focused: they need the capacity to sit on a committee and listen to an argument about public transportation, or trade policy, when those are not their expertise.” That is, to the extent that broad, interdisciplinary thinking is easier for a liberal arts student (whatever her major) than for an engineering student, the former provides an essential contribution to the functioning of democracy—a contribution that could transcend the relative monetary values of the two degrees.

Perhaps most importantly, the world currently faces problems that lie outside the reach of one person or even one nation: irreversible climate change, persistent poverty, religious extremism, severe economic inequality. The answers to these problems certainly do not lie in any one field, but will require tremendous effort and creativity over multiple generations. The American Association for the Advancement of Science holds in a 2013 report that an “innovative, competitive, and strong economy” capable of answering such challenges “cannot be achieved by science alone.” This is another area where the liberal arts model, even if we allow that it may not be a lucrative option for an individual, holds value for society in the aggregate. In economics, this is called a positive externality: a student chooses a liberal arts degree that lowers her lifetime earnings relative to another option, but if that student helps society through her degree (such as by serving in Congress or working to ameliorate inequality), that counts as a tangible benefit.

It is pretty clear, reviewing the discussion over the crisis of the liberal arts, that both sides are missing the point. But one doesn’t need to read far to see that this debate is about more than the liberal arts, and serves as a stand-in for much broader discussions about the purpose of education. The failure of debaters to fully elucidate the unique benefits of a liberal arts education in terms that appeal to the average American has enormous implications, because while the liberal arts perhaps can’t solve pressing problems in the world by themselves, neither can those problems ever be solved without the interdisciplinary mindset fostered by the liberal arts. The role of higher education for the public good in the 21st century is up for debate, and neither side is winning.

butterflyJonathan Giuffrida is a Senior Editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly and a health policy professional in Chicago. He received his bachelors degree from Princeton University.

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