THE BLOG

Debunking The Myths of a Liberal Arts Education

Nov 19, 2013 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

As the former president of Kenyon College and now a senior fellow for the Council of Independent Colleges, I am dismayed by the many myths surrounding the value of a liberal arts education.

The Council of Independent Colleges represents more than 600 small private colleges around the country. These schools are thriving despite media reports to the contrary. They are graduating students with critical thinking skills, independent judgment and a taste for lifelong learning.

Here are the five big myths surrounding liberal arts education -- and why you shouldn't believe them:

  • Liberal arts education is only for the elite -- In fact, private liberal arts colleges enroll the same or a slightly higher percentage of low-income and under-represented students than do the flagship public universities. Nearly one-third of all private college students are from low-income backgrounds. Even more important, all students -- but especially under-represented or low-income students -- graduate at higher rates and in a shorter amount of time when they enroll at liberal arts colleges.

  • It's prohibitively expensive to attend a liberal arts college -- It is true that what liberal arts colleges do -- offering small classes, providing close personal interaction with full-time faculty members, as well as a residential experience -- is expensive. But also true is that these colleges offer six times more student aid than is provided by the federal government. The net cost of attendance is very close to that of attending a state college.
  • Graduates have a staggering amount of debt -- More than 28 percent of students who graduate from small, private liberal arts colleges have no debt at all. For other graduates, the average amount of debt is about $20,000. One of America's most popular small cars, the Ford Focus, retails today for approximately $16,000 to $24,000. Yet there are no doomsday stories in the media about young people incurring "staggering debt" to buy a car. In addition, the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that lifetime earnings for a college graduate exceed those of non-degree earners by $1 million. A $25,000 investment toward a million-dollar-return seems pretty good.
  • This kind of education isn't practical -- A liberal arts education emphasizes forming independent judgments, articulating cogent arguments and developing the tools and taste for continued, lifelong learning. We live in a world where our graduates will be employed in roles that don't even exist today. This kind of learning is more practical than training in a specific skill that may well be obsolete almost upon graduation.
  • Liberal arts graduates are unemployable -- The fact is that unemployment rate for college graduates, even in the depth of the recession, was about half that for non-college graduates. A recent story in the New York Times Sunday magazine highlighted a particularly successful career placement office at a small, private liberal arts college (Wake Forest). Parents there were stunned and pleased to hear that 95 percent of graduates were either fully employed or in graduate school within 6 months of graduation. This statistic is true for many such colleges.
  • We only need to look to our business leaders to see the value of a liberal arts education. Michael Eisner of Disney majored in English and theatre at Denison; the CEO of Procter & Gamble was a French and history major at Hamilton College. Former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson majored in English. Harold Varmus, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and one-time head of the National Institutes of Health, majored in English, as did the former CEO of Xerox and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo.

    At the Council of Independent Colleges, we are collecting stories of liberal arts graduates and what they have done with their educations. Thus far, we have astronauts, entrepreneurs, opera singers and inventors. The real question should not be what can you do with a liberal arts degree, rather, what can't you do with a degree in English, or philosophy, or French?

    The facts are that liberal arts graduates are leaving school with manageable debt and they are finding jobs. There is without doubt a place for successful people in our society, and many, many of them have their educational foundation solidly from the liberal arts.