Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

The Myths and Realities of a Liberal Arts Education

Sean Decatur
June 30, 2016

Editor's note: This piece originally appeared on the Aspen Institute's website. President Sean Decatur spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 30, 2016, on a panel called "Myth or Reality: If You Want A College Education, You Can Get One."  

News headlines and political debates paint a bleak picture of the state of American colleges and universities: graduates are unable to find jobs; curricula is out of alignment with the needs of employers; campuses are torn apart by clashes on issues such as race and sexual assault; and free speech is under attack. Put all of this in the context of rising tuition costs and stagnant growth in family incomes, and the nation’s colleges and universities — once a symbol of America’s intellectual and economic strength — seem to be in crisis.

Private liberal arts colleges such as my institution, Kenyon College, attract particular scrutiny — how does study of the traditional liberal arts, at a price of about $60,000 per year, in a rural setting in Ohio, have any relevance to the fast-paced, technology-driven, globally-connected economy?

But the national discourse on the value of study at a private liberal arts college is based on myths, not reality.

Myth 1: Vocational and career-focused education is more relevant in today’s economy than a traditional liberal arts degree.

Reality: The relationship between the liberal arts and career success has been studied extensively. Reports by the Association of Colleges and Universities point to the value that employers give to hiring employees with proven writing and communication skills, the ability to learn and integrate new material, a broad understanding of the humanities, natural and social sciences, and analytical skills — all hallmarks of a liberal education. Moreover, high-impact pedagogical practices — seminar-style learning, undergraduate research, community-based learning, internships, etc. — enrich students with characteristics that employers report to be highly desirable in prospective employees. Study after study demonstrates that an education in the liberal arts and sciences is excellent preparation for success in a range of careers.

Myth 2: Campus protests in the past year are evidence that students and institutions are out of touch with the values of the real world.

Reality: Liberal arts colleges do much more than prepare students for careers. A complete college experience primes students for lives of active, ethical citizenship in a civil democracy. The student protests of the past year remind us that our campuses are classrooms and laboratories for the practice of citizenship, responsibility and democratic leadership. In other words, they are important learning opportunities, and educational leaders should neither immediately reject nor thoughtlessly capitulate to demands, but rather engage with students by putting issues in broader contexts, listening and at times challenging student concerns, and modeling civil, democratic discourse.

Myth 3: A liberal arts education just isn’t worth the cost — there are other ways to get the same economic return on investment.

Reality: The economic argument on the value of a liberal arts education is clear. Data shows that philosophy majors, so maligned in the presidential debates in early 2016, out-earn business majors on average in the long term. But economic return on investment is only part of the story. A liberal arts education also has a positive effect on one’s general sense of well-being. This is harder to quantify, though studies such as the Gallup-Purdue study are helping us understand the elements of the college experience that have the biggest impact, including close mentoring relationships, meaningful experiences outside of the classroom and opportunities for leadership in clubs or activities. But, even beyond that, a liberal arts education develops strength of character, deepens a sense of compassion and enhances students’ understanding of the workings of the universe and their places within it.

In other words, a degree from a liberal arts college may bring you a career with earning power to justify the investment, a stronger sense of well-being and a life richer with meaning. Worth it? Definitely.