Higher Education

The enduring relevance of a liberal-arts education

The relevance, cost and value of a college education have been hot topics lately on various media platforms. The discussion often seems to be just an exchange of point-counterpoint broadsides among proponents and opponents of a liberal-arts education.

As president of a liberal-arts college, I won’t pretend to be neutral. I have benefited from, and believe in, studying the distinctive blend of the humanities, science and the arts that is the essence of a liberal-arts education. In fact, I recently wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times defending the humanities as part of a well-rounded education.

Marvin Krislov

I believe a liberal-arts education is the best preparation a young person can have for success in life. The mission of most liberal-arts colleges is to educate the whole person rather than training graduates to succeed at specific jobs that employers may be seeking to fill at a certain point in time.

As I said in my letter, we prepare students to lead meaningful, considered lives, to flourish in multiple careers, and to be informed, engaged citizens of their communities and the world. By studying languages and literature, for example, students gain insight into other cultures, and learn to see the world from multiple perspectives. In a global economy, those are powerful assets.

Critics occasionally concede that these are merits of a liberal-arts education. But they argue that it costs too much, is inherently impractical, and does not prepare students to get jobs immediately after graduation. Some experts and government officials advocate for students to pursue a much narrower college curriculum targeted at a clearly defined career opportunity.

This dichotomy was explored in a thought-provoking article in The Wall Street Journal by Peter Cappelli of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. After outlining the ways many colleges are responding to concerns about cost and career benefits by creating new, specialized courses that teach skills students will need in the workplace, Professor Cappelli wrote:

It all makes sense. Except for one thing: It probably won’t work. The trouble is that nobody can predict where the jobs will be—not the employers, not the schools, not the government officials who are making such loud calls for vocational training. The economy is simply too fickle to guess way ahead of time, and any number of other changes could roil things as well. Choosing the wrong path could make things worse, not better.

He went on to make some sensible recommendations about how parents and students can get the most out of a college education.

One point that comes up frequently in articles both for and against the liberal arts is that some surveys show a large majority of employers rating the college graduates they hire as unprepared or under-prepared for their jobs.

That is no surprise. The more telling point is that employers remain far more likely to hire college graduates. The unemployment rate for college graduates remains much lower than for high-school graduates, while college grads’ earnings are significantly higher. That has been the case for years.

As for preparedness, every new job—from dishwasher to CEO—comes with a learning curve. In my experience, employers value employees who work hard, learn quickly, know how to teach themselves, and bring knowledge, insight and creativity to their jobs.

Those are the qualities that liberal-arts colleges foster. We teach our students to become lifelong learners who are their own best teachers. We teach them to take intellectual risks and to think laterally—to understand how the humanities, the arts and the sciences inform, enrich and affect one another. By connecting diverse ideas and themes across academic disciplines, liberal-arts students learn to better reason and analyze, and to express their creativity and their ideas. They are capable of thinking and acting globally and locally.

Those attributes are worth attaining to lead a more fulfilling life. But they are also critically important for our graduates’ future success in this globalized, technologically driven economy. A survey last April of 318 executives at private-sector companies and nonprofit organizations underscored the importance of the liberal arts. It showed that the attributes of liberal-arts graduates are exactly what those leaders value in their employees and seek in the people they hire. Four out of five employers said each college graduate should have broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.

Why? Because possessing broad, deep knowledge and skills and the ability to think flexibly and creatively is more important than ever before. Studies show that current college graduates will likely change careers 15 times in their lives, and are likely to make 11 career changes before turning 40.

That is why Oberlin and many other liberal-arts colleges have strengthened their career-services offices in recent years to help students put the knowledge and critical-thinking skills they acquire to good use. Colleges also encourage students from their first days on campus to pursue internships and other career opportunities.

But preparing students for one specific job is risky because of how quickly the economy and the job market can change. To use a Wall Street-related analogy, preparing for one specific job is   similar to investing heavily in a single stock based on its past performance—widely considered a bad investment strategy. Diversification, spreading the risk across a variety of sectors and investments, is a more judicious approach.

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It’s true that providing students a top-quality liberal-arts education in a residential setting is costly. At most liberal-arts colleges, we not only educate our students—we house and feed them, and provide for their health and well-being. And demand from students and their families for support services keeps growing. Providing those things is expensive.

At the same time, most liberal-arts schools are striving to reduce expenses, to be affordable, and to minimize students’ exposure to debt by providing financial aid. For colleges, this is a difficult financial balancing act.

But the breadth and depth of the education provided by good liberal-arts colleges offers unique advantages to undergraduates. Classes are smaller than at large research universities. Students usually study with full professors, not graduate students or adjuncts. Opportunities for independent research are more readily available. Students are better able to shape their own courses of study across traditional academic disciplines.

Residential liberal-arts colleges also offer their students educational opportunities outside of the classroom. At every liberal-arts college, the curriculum is enriched and enhanced by extra-curricular and co-curricular offerings, including myriad student organizations, lectures, films, concerts, recitals, exhibitions, symposia, and health and wellness and athletic events that occur every semester.

Is the expense worth it? And what about the possibility that a student and his or her family might incur debt to help pay for college?

Those are tough questions. I believe the expense is worth it. Study after study shows college graduates will earn significantly more over their lifetimes than their peers who do not get college degrees. And, yes, I’m aware that Bill Gates did not graduate from college and has done quite well financially. But it’s fair to say he is exceptional.

Regarding debt, ultimately parents and students must make financial decisions based on their circumstances. How one handles debt is a highly personal matter. In our society, we routinely borrow money to buy new cars or homes, even though the former depreciates significantly the moment you drive it off the lot and the latter comes with no guarantee that it’ll prove a profitable investment.

I am not advocating that students take out college loans. In fact, my college works hard to eliminate loans for students from families with very low incomes. But on a macro scale, one way to think about college loans is as an investment in yourself. You are paying to acquire skills and knowledge that—with some care and nurturing—will likely appreciate in value for the rest of your life. If a salesperson offered to sell me a new car or a home that would appreciate in value for as long as I live, I would be interested, to say the least.

But financial gain is only part of the value of a liberal-arts education. Its true worth is measured in lifetimes. Through the years, the breadth, depth, flexibility, and rigor of American liberal-arts education has produced better lives, and so many leaders in virtually every field of human endeavor.

Given the global leadership of American graduate education and the global economy’s demands for flexible, adaptable employees, undergraduate liberal-arts education is more than relevant. It remains one of our country’s great assets. For those of us working in liberal-arts education, it is impossible to place a value on seeing our students’ lives unfold, blossom, and benefit humankind long after graduation day.

Marvin Krislov has served as president of Oberlin College since 2007.

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