Is a College Education Worth It?

Critics suggest that a liberal arts degree (the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences) does not lead to quality employment opportunities and instead equate study in STEM-related fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with majoring "in a subject designed to get you a job." While Bryan provides a broad-based liberal arts education that includes, for example, majors in science and mathematics, some colleges offer science and mathematics majors without a true liberal arts experience.  This section will examine the value of a liberal arts college education in broad terms in the following discussion:

Answering the value question 

 
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The question of whether a liberal arts education is less valuable than study in STEM-related fields was examined by a congressional commission created in 2011. The congressional report, The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation, released June 2013, reports the following regarding a liberal arts education:
  • Many disciplines in the humanities characterized as “soft” often, in fact, lead to employment and success in the long run.  
  • According to surveys, employers have expressed a preference for students who have received a broadly based education that has taught them to write well, think critically, research creatively and communicate easily.
  • Students should be prepared not just for their first job but for their fourth and fifth jobs, as there is little reason to doubt that people entering the workforce today will be called upon to play many different roles over the course of their careers. The ones who will do best in this new environment will be those whose educations have prepared them to be flexible.  Those with the ability to draw upon every available tool and insight—gleaned from science, arts and technology—to solve the problems of the future and take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves will stand themselves and the U.S. in good stead.

Going to college is as good an investment as ever

  • Even with the supply of graduates increasing, college is as good an investment as ever. They answer the "why-is-this-so question" with one word: technology. "As computers and information technology get adopted, there are more jobs that require non-routine, abstract thinking—exactly what colleges hope to develop. In about 1980, the demand for college-related skills started to beat supply, and that's never stopped. 
  • Despite a massive increase in the supply of college graduates, the premium in wages for college graduates has continued to rise.
  • There's also a huge gap between those who finish college, and those that finish just a little, giving new life to the phrase "stay in school." The premium isn't constant across all schools and jobs, but it exists in all major occupational sectors:
  • Even with the soaring supply of college graduates, McKinsey predicts an 18-million-person shortage of college-educated workers by 2020.
  • In weak or changing economies, those who haven't tailored their degrees to the job market are likely going to have a tough time right out of school. That's unfortunate, and a sign that schools have work to do in tailoring their offerings and reducing costs. But turning that into an argument against going at all is taking it too far.2

Achieving success with an undergraduate liberal arts major

Here are 15 successful individuals who started out with liberal arts undergraduate degrees:
 

Mitt Romney, Bain Capital CEO

English

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Peter Thiel, PayPal Co-founder and CEO

20th Century Philosophy

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Ken Chenault, American Express CEO

History

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Carl Icahn, Activist Investor

Philosophy

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Michael Eisner, former Disney CEO

English and Theatre

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Sheila Bair, FDIC Chair

Philosophy

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Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice

English

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Harold Varmus, Nobel Laureate in Medicine

English

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Richard Anderson, Delta Air Lines CEO

Political Science

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Brian Moynihan, Bank of America CEO

History

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Andrea Jung, Former Avon CEO

English Literature

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Judy McGrath, Ex-MTV CEO

English

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Mario Cuomo, Former New York Governor

English

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Robert Gates, Ex-Secretary of Defense

History

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Robert Iger, Disney CEO

Communications

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Preparing to meet the demands of the new economy

  • In 1956, William Whyte, the noted sociologist, wrote The Organizational Man to name the developing shift in work for that generation. Whyte recognized that white-collar workers traded independence for stability and security. What got them ahead in the then-new economy was the ability to fit in (socialization) and a deep set of narrow vocational skills. Firms at the time developed career ladders, and successful junior executives who honed their skills and got along advanced up the food chain.
  • Today, no such career ladder exists. And narrow sets of skills may not be the ticket they once were. We are witnessing a new way of working developing before our eyes. Today, breadth, cultural knowledge and sensitivity, flexibility, the ability to continually learn, grow and reinvent, technical skills, as well as drive and passion, define the road to success. And liberal arts institutions should take note, because this is exactly what we do best.
  • Many of the skills needed to survive and thrive in the new economy are exactly those a well-rounded liberal arts education has always provided: depth, breadth, knowledge in context and motion, and the search for deeper understanding.
  • In this fluid world, arts and sciences graduates may have an advantage. They can seek out new opportunities and strike quickly. They are innovative and nimble. They think across platforms, understand society and culture, and see technology as a tool rather than an end in itself. In short, liberal arts graduates have the tools to make the best out of the new economy. And, above all, we need to better job identifying our successes, our alumni, as well as presenting them to the public. We need to ensure that the public knows a liberal arts degree is still, and always has been, a ticket to success.3

Computing the payoff

  • It's a mistake to judge the payoff from a degree or a college major by looking at earnings in one's first job after college. Like other investments, education pays off over time. No venture capitalist would judge a Silicon Valley startup by its profits in the first year. As college graduates get older, their earnings rise much faster on average and peak at a later age than do those of high school graduates with similar backgrounds and test scores. This payoff occurs not just for people who study the sciences and engineering, but also for people who major in the humanities and the social sciences. PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who has advocated skipping college altogether, has managed to do quite well with his Stanford University philosophy degree. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who wants to give state support only to the sciences and engineering, has somehow gotten by with a degree in political science and education.
  • Some naysayers contend college is now so expensive that the earnings premium no longer justifies the cost of the education. But the reality is that at today's prices, college graduates make up for the price of college and for time out of the labor force fairly quickly. By the time they reach their early to mid-30s, typical college graduates are enjoying the extra earnings free and clear.4

Applauding the value of clear writing and the liberal arts

  • De-emphasizing, de-funding, and demonizing the humanities means that students don't get trained well in the things that are the hardest to teach once at a job: thinking and writing clearly. 
  • CEOs, including Jeff Bezos, Logitech's Bracken Darrell, Aetna's Mark Bertolini, and legendary Intel co-founder Andy Grove emphasize how essential clear writing and the liberal arts are. STEM alone isn't enough. Even Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke recently gave English majors a shout-out.  
  • The point is that good writing isn't just a "utilitarian skill" as Klinkenborg puts it but something that takes a great deal of practice, thought, and engagement with history and what other people have written.5   

Listening to what employers want

The Association of American Colleges and University survyed 318 executives at private sector companies and nonprofit organizations with these results:
  • 93 percent of employers agreed that "a candidate's demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major."
  • 4 out of 5 employers said each college graduate should have broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences
  • 3 out of 4 would recommend a liberal education to their own children.
  • 55 percent said they look for grads with both field-specific skills and a broad range of knowledge for longer-term career advancement.
  • 16 percent said having knowledge and skills that apply to a specific field is the most important criteria they seek.
  • 83 percent said an e-portfolio of student accomplishments would be useful in evaluating candidates for hire.6
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1 Annette Gordon-Reed, "Critics of the Liberal Arts Are Wrong," Time Ideas19 June 2013.
2 Max Nisen, "An Irrefutable Data-based Argument for Going to College," Business Insider29 May 2013.
3 Richard A. Greenwald, "Liberal Arts II: The Economy Requires Them," Inside Higher Ed, 1 October 2010. 
4 Morton Schapiro, et al. "Fact and Fiction about Getting a College Education," Chicago Tribune, 3 March 2013.
5 Max Nisen, "America Is Raising a Generation of Kids Who Can't Think or Write Clearly," Business Insider, 26 June 2013.
6 Tyler Kingkade, "Employers Want Broadly Educated College Grads, Capable of Innovation: AACU Survey," Huffington Post, 10 April 2013.