Is A (Liberal Arts) College Degree Still Worth It?

"The Tuition Is Too Damn High"

"Is College Still Worth It?"

"How the College Bubble Will Pop"

Those headlines -- from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal, respectively -- are part of a powerful media narrative that both reflects and feeds a growing public concern about the cost, the value, even the necessity of a college degree. It's a narrative that argues too many Americans are taking on too much debt to earn college degrees of too little practical value.

Let's all take a deep breath, and look beyond the headlines.

Nearly every such story begins with an eye-popping example -- some poor soul with $100,000 in student loans and a bachelor's degree in philosophy (to which I take particular exception), working as a bike messenger -- that is in no way representative.

At Wooster, about half of our students graduate with no debt at all, and those who do owe an average of $26,750 when they graduate, $3,150 less than the national average.

The return on that investment remains significant. In fact, the Pew Research Center has found that for younger workers, those from 25 to 32, the earnings gap between those with a college degree and those without is wider than at any time in the past 50 years. Considered over a lifetime of earnings, a college graduate will earn $900,000 more over a career than a high school graduate; a person with a masters degree will earn $400,000 more than one with a bachelor's degree; and, a person with a doctoral degree will earn $900,000 more than one with a masters or $2.2 million more than one with a high school degree. Wooster, as you likely know, is highly ranked for graduates who go on to earn advanced degrees.

So is there a lifetime of value -- simply economic value -- in a Wooster degree? Absolutely, YES!

Some might suspect that most of those benefits accrue to graduates with business or pre-professional degrees, rather than those in the humanities. Not so. A study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) released earlier this year compared earnings trajectories for graduates who majored in the humanities, arts, and social sciences with those whose undergraduate majors were in science and mathematics, engineering, or professional and pre-professional fields like business and education.

The results? While the median earnings of engineering graduates are consistently higher than all the rest, by their peak earnings years those whose undergraduate major was in the humanities or social sciences actually earn, on average, $2,000 more than those who majored in professional or pre-professional fields.

AAC&U has also asked employers what they value most when making hiring decisions, and 93 percent say that "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems" is more important than an undergraduate's major. Ninety-five percent say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and the capacity of continued new learning.

That sounds like a Wooster graduate to me. And if you ask our alumni, they'll agree.

Julia Klein '83, a political science major at Wooster, is chairwoman and CEO of C.H. Briggs, one of the largest independently owned distributors of specialty building materials on the east coast. "When I look at the kind of success I've been lucky enough to have in business, I can trace it directly back to my Wooster education," she says. "The way I think about things, my curiosity, my imagination, the kind of questions I ask, those are abilities, skills, traits that you don't get in business school. That comes from a great liberal arts education."

Tim Smucker '67, chairman of The J.M. Smucker Company, stresses the intercultural and leadership skills he gained while earning his bachelor's degree in economics. "I think a liberal arts education in general, and mine in particular, provided a broad perspective and appreciation and compassion for other disciplines and cultures," he says. "It provided the background necessary to develop leadership skills that encompass a sensitive and mindful approach to others' interests, capabilities, and desires."

With all this said, we dramatically undershoot the mark if we reduce the idea of a practical education to career readiness. As I have argued in an essay in Liberal Education*, a Wooster education is practical in a much deeper sense; it is preparation for an effective and responsible life engaged with the global realities of our time. Practical wisdom is the moral and intellectual wherewithal to live well, to prosper and thrive oneself, and, in so doing, to contribute to the prosperity and well-being of others. In this sense, a Wooster education is the most practical education possible in and for the world today.

Is a liberal arts college degree still worth it? More than ever. At Wooster? More than anywhere.

* "An Education for the 21st Century: Stewardship of the Global Commons," by Douglas C. Bennett, Grant H. Cornwell, Haifa Jamal l-Lail and Celeste Schenck, Liberal Education, Fall 2012

This essay first appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Wooster magazine.