Liberal Arts Value Goes Beyond Dollars

We have heard much recently from politicians, pundits and others about the purpose and value of higher education. From President Barack Obama on down, almost all of the commentary has focused on the economic imperative of higher education, lamenting how the United States is falling behind other countries and how we need to be able to compete economically with China. The downturn in the economy has increased this rhetoric, narrowing the conversation about, and the understanding of, the purpose of higher education. This rhetoric has grossly undervalued an education in the liberal arts, which include math and sciences as well as humanities. Viewing higher education only through an economic prism distorts its broader value and benefits both to the individual and society. Viewing the liberal arts as unresponsive to the economic prospects of individuals and to the health of our society is no less a distortion.

Certainly, higher education has an economic component. The data remain clear; those with college degrees earn more than those without a degree and are employed at much higher rates. This is true regardless of the undergraduate degree. But repeated surveys of CEOs have shown their preference for liberal arts graduates and the broad range of skills and attributes they bring to the workplace, particularly their adaptability and ability to learn. In addition, the growing emphasis on immediate employment as the single most important outcome is extremely shortsighted and looks more like training than education. It might prepare graduates for a first, entry-level job, but will it prepare them for a dynamic economy where adaptability, creative thinking, cogent and clear writing, effective speaking and teamwork are essential?

These qualities are common to liberal arts graduates and crucial to a truly competitive workforce.

But the value of a college education goes far beyond earning power and the contribution to the economy. It is more than a simple return on investment. A college education, especially one on a residential campus, should be a preparation for life. We don't spend our entire life in the economic sector; we spend it with family, in communities, in nations and in the broader world. Our contributions as family members and citizens are arguably as important, if not more important, than what we do to earn a living. And the evidence is also clear in these broader aspects of life.

College graduates have more stable families, volunteer at higher levels, and support charities and other philanthropic endeavors at greater rates and levels. They participate in public and community affairs and vote at a greater rate than those without a college degree. In short, a college education prepares graduates for citizenship, which requires a deeper and broader education than job training can, or means, to provide. The big ideas encountered and engaged at liberal arts colleges provide that depth and breadth.

One of the great strengths of American higher education is its diversity. It would be a tragedy if our narrow thinking and current economic challenges caused us to homogenize and commoditize American higher education and universally treat students merely as inputs for the economy, cogs in an assembly line. Certainly, we need to offer the opportunities for training essential for an individual to participate in and contribute to the economy. But training alone will not provide the inspiration, understanding, drive and skills necessary for a vibrant economy, an engaged citizenry, a dynamic society and an effective democracy.

These come from education, and since the early days of our republic, most specifically from liberal arts colleges -- colleges that have helped cultivate the creative thinkers, innovators and leaders in our economy and the society. The fact that the rest of the world is looking to the liberal arts for an alternative to education as information-based training shouldn't be lost on the United States as we envision the future of education in our own country. St. John's is proud to carry on the best traditions of the liberal arts for the benefit of its students and for our society.