The Value of Liberal Arts: An Education, Not Just a Degree

By Gettings, Michael | The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA), August 18, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Value of Liberal Arts: An Education, Not Just a Degree


Gettings, Michael, The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA)


It's back-to-school season, and students are heading to college. Over the past few years, the question of the cost and value of college education has become part of our national conversation. The sticker price of many private colleges is now more than $40,000 a year, and public universities are much more expensive than even 10 years ago, as they increasingly depend on tuition dollars.

The public generally recognizes that a college education, or at least a college degree, is a passport to career opportunities not available to those with only a high school education. Indeed, census data indicate that the median annual income for a college graduate aged 25 or over is more than $22,000 higher than the median for a worker with only a high school degree. The gains are not only monetary. College graduates report higher overall job and life satisfaction than those without a college degree.

This doesn't completely relieve the public's sticker shock, however. Increasingly, college students and their families are looking for ways to justify the high expense, and in a constricted labor market, immediate job prospects are a high priority. In UCLA's most recent freshman survey, which collects responses from new students at 283 colleges and universities, more than 87 percent of students surveyed cited "getting a better job" as their top reason to go to college, an all-time high. This number is up more than 20 percent over the survey's results in 1976. At the same time, the survey reveals that fewer students are choosing to go to college to "gain a general education and appreciation of ideas," a reason that used to be cited just as often as getting a better job.

The focus on job prospects has led many students toward fields of study they deem most likely to result in employment after graduation. Traditional liberal arts fields, such as history, literature, modern languages, classics or my own field, philosophy, appear less attractive to students whose primary concern is employment. Indeed, studies of higher education over the past 20 years indicate that the number of liberal arts colleges is shrinking. This is not because they are shutting down. They are adapting to the demands of the marketplace by adding graduate degrees, pre-professional programs, and business and law schools. A 2012 study concluded that only 130 true liberal arts colleges remain, down from 540 in the Carnegie Foundation's 1987 classification.

The shrinking of the liberal arts results is a loss of the broad- based education provided by liberal arts colleges. This education puts as much emphasis on general skills as on acquiring topic- specific knowledge. The skills are developed by reading, assessing and evaluating texts, conducting scientific research, and appreciating and producing artworks, all of which promote critical thinking, reasoning, writing and effective communication. …

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The Value of Liberal Arts: An Education, Not Just a Degree
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