Jilting Liberal Arts Can Hurt the US, to a Degree
Business + Economy

Jilting Liberal Arts Can Hurt the US, to a Degree

REUTERS/Andrea Comas

If there’s one thing liberal arts colleges offer, it’s critical thinking. That might be why this spring Occidental College is offering a course called “Liberal Arts at the Brink? Navigating the Crisis in Higher Education.” The course examines whether college liberal arts curricula like its own can survive in a time of high unemployment and rising student debt.

It’s a question many experts are asking – and some worry about the consequences. The number of liberal arts colleges nationwide has dropped from 212 in 1990 to only 130 today, according to a study this summer in the journal Liberal Education. The National Center for Education Statistics says the share of students matriculating with a liberal arts degree, as a percentage of all graduates, dropped slightly from 2004 to 2010 from 3 to 2.8 percent.

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Meanwhile, students are flocking to more technical professions that they think offer immediate employment after graduation. The NCES data show that graduates in the health professions, homeland security, law enforcement, and parks management, for example, all have gained as a share of the total.

The perception that a technical degree equals a job may well be accurate, at least in the short term. A study released last January by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce found that college graduates age 22−26 with humanities and liberal arts degrees had an unemployment rate of 9.4 percent, the third worst of the 15 degree areas sampled. Health and education majors fared best, both at 1.9 percent.

Findings like those have at least one state considering a plan to steer students away from the liberal arts to more technical fields. A task force appointed by Florida Governor Rick Scott has proposed using state subsidies to freeze tuition for students enrolled in science and tech fields only – such as engineering and biotechnology. “I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees….” Scott said in October 2011.  “So when [our kids] get out of school, they can get a job.”

Liberal arts defenders, however, say funneling resources to technical fields is a losing proposition for both students and the country. Former college president Victor Ferrall, author of the 2011 book Liberal Arts at the Brink, says that since people change jobs at least five or six times in the course of their careers, a narrow technical focus will create workers who aren’t as adaptable as those with broader educations. He sees technical degree programs that are focused on meeting an immediate economic demand, like computer game design, as unpromising.

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Perhaps more important, without a strong background in history, philosophy and literature, how can this generation lead the next?  Will these students understand the how to govern a nation or manage a company?  

Too much focus on technical disciplines could make the economy less robust, says David Fiorenza, an economist specializing in urban planning who teaches at Villanova University’s School of Business. Vibrant communities, he says, are those with a good mix of businesses, both tiny coffee shops and Fortune 500 companies. The same holds true for degree programs. He says the country needs a labor pool of people with a spectrum of majors.

Even some firms see the danger of hiring too many people with a narrow technical focus. Balentine, an investment management firm in Atlanta, for example, often brings on employees with liberal arts backgrounds over those with finance degrees, says Tonia Edwards, who manages the firm’s hiring. “The decline in the number of liberal arts degrees has huge implications for employees’ abilities to successfully communicate and innovatively solve problems,” she says. “We can train you on how to do the hard skills, but what we have a more difficult time training people for is critical thinking and communication.” 

In fact, the company’s CEO has a degree in French literature, its communications director studied international affairs, and Edwards herself graduated in French and film studies. They’re trying, Edwards says, to avoid “group think,” the kind that brought down the economy in 2008.

The company isn’t alone. A number of studies appear to indicate that companies value qualities found in a liberal arts education. For example, in a 2011 survey of a thousand professionals across a range of industries commissioned by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, 55 percent said they preferred students to get a “broad-based education that helps them choose their best career path.”

Still, if many in the business world value new hires with a humanities-focused education, they’re not compensating them accordingly. The Georgetown study found that average salaries for recent humanities and liberal arts graduates were $31,000, which ranked 12th of the 15 majors that the study examined.  Only recreation, arts, and psychology/social work graduates fared worse, at $30,000; engineering grads topped the list at $55,000.   

That and the soaring cost of higher education today are why one community college president thinks students should be making more financially realistic choices about their degree program. “If your passion is public service driven by a liberal arts degree, Lord knows that’s critical for the country,” says Tom Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana. “But the typical job [in that area] is going to pay $35,000 a year, and a [college] debt load equal to that will be a long burden if not a lifetime one.”

He notes that about 6 percent of students enrolled in Indiana’s community colleges already have bachelor’s degrees: They’re either coming back to ensure themselves a more predictable income, or they’re pursuing a lifetime passion that their current degree doesn’t prepare them for, he says.

Indeed, for liberal arts colleges, the key problem is that they’re often charging higher tuitions for degrees that bring in lower salaries after graduation. Schools like Smith College in Massachusetts are starting to question whether their value proposition – small  class sizes, highly trained and well remunerated faculty, ornate campuses – is  sustainable, notes an October 2011 report by the trade journal Inside Higher Ed. Smith spent about $62,000 per student in 2009, compared with $32,000 for nearby public research school the University of Massachusetts at Amherst .

For his part, economist Fiorenza is more hopeful about the future of humanities-oriented education. Interest in the liberal arts is cyclical, he says. When times are tough, students tend to move toward the technical and professional degrees: “In time you’ll see some of that equilibrium come back and people will return to the liberal arts.”