What exactly is “liberal arts”…and why go there?

The liberal arts may be a nice idea, but they just don’t matter and can’t be afforded. It is engineering, computer science, pre-professional tracks, and business (particularly finance) that lead to good paying career opportunities and make the exorbitant cost of college worthwhile. 

Let me argue against that conclusion.

If you anticipate doing post-graduate work and conducting research, you will find like-minded peers at liberal arts colleges. The reality is that attending a small liberal arts college increases your chances for acceptance to a PhD program. Click here for a table of PhD feeder schools. 

“Liberal arts” is shorthand for “liberal arts and sciences.”  Two of the four letters in the STEM acronym, S and M, are ideally suited for a liberal arts college.  According to the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) twenty percent of PhD’s in STEM fields graduated from smaller, private, liberal arts colleges… only 12% from public universities. And, “On a per capita basis… liberal arts colleges produce twice as many students who earn a PhD in science than other institutions.” (Lynn O’Shaughnessy of The College Solution)

Forget STEM for a moment, employers show a preference for a liberal arts education.  Employers want students with broad knowledge (80%), which is the foundation of a liberal arts education and believe that (93%) the ability to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than a specific major. Percentages quoted are per a CIC employer survey, which also concludes that undergraduates from the humanities and social sciences earn more during their peak earning ages (~ $2,000 annually) than those who chose a pre-professional track.

Engineering and computer science are fantastic fields for those interested in them, but, even there, interdisciplinary teams of engineers are on the rise and those with a broad scope of knowledge benefit solutions and are more valued than the narrowly focused.  In business, understanding the breadth of history, literature, art, and philosophies of the world makes one better able to relate to the diversity of individuals, to grasp their interests and capabilities, and to think productively. This is how business and engineering add value.

A few more aspects of a liberal arts college education from the CIC:

  • You are more likely to graduate in four years (59% vs. 38% of public universities)
  • You are more likely to volunteer (64% vs. 22% of public universities)
  • You are more likely to receive grants (twice as likely than at public universities)
  • Private colleges award grants three times larger than public universities. Though the sticker price of private colleges is high ($30,090), students pay on average $12,450. 
  • A low student-faculty ratio (11:1) affords supportive relationships with faculty and the room for creative and critical thinking.

It is not clear to me at all that the liberal arts don’t matter and can’t be afforded…just the opposite.