The sticker price for a private liberal arts college degree has never been higher. The average cost of attendance reported for on-campus students at the 190 such institutions we examined, including tuition, fees, room and board, and books, reached $ 58,000 in 2019. -2020, some establishments charging up to $ 77,000. per year. With the scholarships and tuition rebates, the average net cost drops to $ 26,000 per year, a commitment that is still significant for all but the wealthiest families. Can these institutions, a uniquely American invention, prove their worth in the face of demands for more targeted preparation of the workforce?
Liberal arts colleges are forced to respond to general skepticism about higher education, skepticism not necessarily about their making. A recent career preparation study shows that only 42% of employers express satisfaction with the written and verbal communication of college graduates, only 33% believe college graduates are ready for leadership, and a meager 21% rate college graduates as fluent intercultural.
Students with a traditional liberal arts training have a demonstrated advantage in the job market. Fluency in foreign languages doesn’t just earn you a salary premium; the demand for bilingual employees is explode, including in prestigious sectors of the economy. A recent study by the Center on Education and the Workforce showed that although liberal arts college graduates may be at a disadvantage in starting salary, this changes over the course of their careers. Noting that there are many variables, the study still found that “the median return on investment for liberal arts colleges is nearly $ 200,000 higher than the median of all colleges. In addition, the 40-year median return on investment for liberal arts institutions ($ 918,000) is close to that of four-year engineering and technology schools ($ 917,000) and business and management schools. over four years ($ 913,000).
Why do liberal arts colleges globally offer such a return on investment? According to a 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics baby boomer survey, the average individual can expect to change jobs 12 times in 34 years in the workforce. Highly specialized degrees and pre-vocational training often fail to equip graduates with the intellectual agility and critical thinking skills that a solid liberal arts background cultivates, and these are the exact skills employers are looking for. A recent Job Outlook Survey of the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 82% of employers seek employees with excellent written communication skills, 81% seek workers with problem-solving skills, and 72% favor hiring employees with analytical / quantitative skills.
While an education that prepares students with skills in a targeted area can provide a clear entry point into the job market, it does not prepare graduates well for the growth and ever-changing demands of the economy. knowledge, the fifth – or tenth – job in a long career Richard Ekman, Chairman of the Council of Independent Colleges, observes: Graduates confirm these trends.
Not all liberal arts colleges live up to their heritage, but in general, they do a better job of laying the foundation for intellectual versatility and creativity.
Their permanent danger comes from the erosion of the basic program. Each year my organization, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), publishes a investigation of core curriculum requirements, commonly referred to as “general education”, at more than 1,100 colleges and universities. Based on their latest online course catalogs, schools are rated on a scale from “A” to “F”, depending on the number of the following major liberal arts subjects they require: composition, literature, (level intermediate) foreign language, US government or History, economics, mathematics and natural sciences. In order for a school to receive credits, the subject must be a requirement, not just an option.
In the 2020-2021 survey, only 23 establishments obtain a “A” to require students to take courses in at least six of the seven major subjects; 135 schools fail. Only 57% have a compulsory college-level math course, only 12% ensure students demonstrate an intermediate-level mastery in a foreign language, and just 18% require a foundation course on the US government or the story.
As with all schools, including liberal arts colleges, the potential candidate should “look under the hood.” There are liberal arts colleges, some quite invigorating and expensive, whose general education programs are a line of cafeteria choices, rather than a reasoned set of basic requirements. Some even brag about their lack of requirements. Caveat emptor still applies.
It is also significant that not all liberal arts institutions are private. Christopher Newport University requires each of the seven subjects taken by ACTA, as well as others. The Oklahoma University of Science and the Arts, with an annual in-state tuition fee of $ 8,440, explicitly rejects the “cafeteria plan” of near-random choices so frequently seen today, and claims a disciplined set of requirements, spanning all four years.
As the public continues to lose faith in higher education institutions and student debt continues to skyrocket, the return on investment of a bachelor’s degree is being watched more than ever. Choose wisely.