Ever since reading many of President Michael Roth’s articles on the value of a liberal arts education, I’ve started to think about the different arguments that have been put forward. I’m certainly no expert on the topic, but I thought I could share some of my experiences when thinking about my own higher education.
Initially, President Roth’s frequent articles about the value of a liberal arts education appeared to be for the benefit of Wesleyan. As a president of a liberal arts university, it made sense that he would want to have a constant drumbeat highlighting the benefits of liberal arts over career-oriented education. The more people are convinced by the arguments, the larger the pool of students for liberal arts universities in New England.
However, after drilling down into the issue, the debate between liberal arts and career training becomes a lot more complex than an ad-hoc advertisement campaign. Economists are debating whether college adds value to a person’s productivity (liberal arts), or if it is simply a signal to employers that a student is ready to accept responsibilities (career-oriented). The implications are huge, if college is just a signal that a student can perform a set of tasks, then the expansion of cheap, career-oriented education would be a better policy. But if a well-rounded education increases critical thinking and thus makes more productive and skilled workers and leaders, then liberal arts remains important.
One point of comparison is Wesleyan graduates versus Wharton School graduates. Wharton is one of the top business schools in the country, signaling to employers that their graduates have received the best financial education possible. I’ve heard from a few individuals that Wesleyan graduates usually “catch up” to the Wharton graduates within a year, and surpass them in ability afterwards. Despite not having the technical skills of elite business schools, Wesleyan graduates are competitive for top entry-level financial sector jobs. There are quite a few Wesleyan alums who are CEOs and have “useless” degrees.
It appears, then, that President Roth’s arguments hold a lot of water. The wide array of courses at Wesleyan allows candidates to better learn when they get to their first jobs, and eclipse their peers.
Concern over job opportunities after graduation is a key concern in the debate as well. In career-oriented education, the “jump” from college to the working world is very small. A student studies accounting, takes the accounting classes, and upon graduation searches out accounting firms that are hiring. Universities facilitate this jump by securing internships and developing relationships with businesses in the graduates’ fields of study. As long as the student has satisfied the requirements and does not bomb the interviews, they are going to be hired into a healthy middle-class income with a large upside.
Compare this to a liberal arts student who graduates with a degree in philosophy. As Eric Forman said to his sister after she declared philosophy as her major on “That ’70s Show,” “Oh good, because they just opened that big philosophy factory in Green Bay.” In other words, a philosophy graduate has a much bigger gap to leap over into the working world than the accounting graduate. That jump causes stress and carries a lot of risk.
A student who decides to join the liberal arts essentially closes their eyes and prays that there are career paths available after graduation. The market for many careers relies on a strong economy, which means jobs available now may disappear if there is another crash, making projections difficult for freshmen.
I personally went through this thought process: After getting out of the Army I was certain I wanted to be in accounting or finance, and got an Associate’s degree in accounting before having to decide between Wesleyan or a university that offered degrees in business. I obviously decided on Wesleyan, fully knowing I was leaving a much more secure career path. The much higher upside offered by liberal arts convinced me that this school was worth the risk.
We can also look at the socioeconomic equality in comparing career-oriented education and liberal arts. There is a reason why liberal arts colleges are tiny and among the most expensive in the country: In order to offer a myriad of classes, the university needs to hire and pay for a wide array of professors. Class sizes need to be small. All of this adds up to a very resource-intense education process that is highly selective and skims the cream off the top of high schools.
The career-oriented education path is much more economical to produce and consume. Pay one professor and a couple of assistants to teach a class of hundreds the basics of accounting, give tests on a Scantron, and pass the students along like a product on a factory line to the next level of instruction. These colleges churn out trained, college-educated students much more cheaply, and thus are able to accept a lot more students, without having the high tuition costs.
Wesleyan may offer very generous financial aid packages to low-income families, but they only offer them to the top seniors. The rest of the class has to look elsewhere, and usually can’t afford anything more than the local public university, community college, or a for-profit college. To them, liberal arts truly is a luxury that cannot be afforded, and cannot take the risk of liberal arts post-graduation jump. They need a much more secure line to a middle-class income for higher education to be worth it.
The remaining question logically follows: Is it possible to have low-cost liberal arts education that can accept more than a few thousand students each year? I believe it is, or at least a hybrid system is possible. At Norwalk Community College, they have incorporated a few liberal arts classes into the accounting degree graduation requirements. There was a concern that accounting graduates were unable to express themselves clearly to their co-workers in meetings, so the response was to add in courses about art, history, and public speaking.
An accountant who knows how to do the job is good; an accountant who has also taken classes on the philosophy of ethics, and therefore is much more prepared to navigate the morally gray areas of accounting, is better. Perhaps a lot less scandal and corruption would happen if this were so.
I do agree with President Roth: A liberal arts education is not just a luxury for wealthy American families. The value it adds to society, the opportunities and quality of life it affords to students, is well worth the risk and expense. I hope that more centers of higher education follow Norwalk Community College’s path and add liberal arts to their graduation requirements, so all students can benefit.
So for those of you who are considering Wesleyan, I say if you want to know more about the world, take the jump. I will guarantee there will rarely be a dull moment.
Stascavage is a member of the class of 2018.