The Value of a Liberal Arts Degree: What is the Return on Investment?

By | November 3, 2023

Mississippi’s state auditor recently released an eight-page report suggesting the state should invest more in college programs that could “enhance the value they provide to taxpayers and graduates.”

That means state appropriations should focus more on engineering and business programs, said Shad White, the auditor, and less on liberal arts disciplines like anthropology, women’s studies and German language and literature.

These graduates not only earn less, Mr. White said, but they are also less likely to stay in Mississippi. More than 60 percent of anthropology graduates leave to look for work, he said.

“If I had to advise my kids, I would say, first and foremost, find a course of study that combines your passion with some kind of practical skill that the world actually needs,” Mr. White said in an interview. (He has three young children, nowhere near college age.)

For years, economists and many concerned parents have questioned whether a liberal arts degree is worth the price. The debate now seems to be over and the answer is “no”.

Not only are public officials, like Mr. White, questioning state support for the humanities, but a growing number of universities, often aided by outside consultants, are now putting many valuable departments on the chopping block – history of art, American studies –. They say they face headwinds, including students fleeing to majors more closely tied to employment.

West Virginia University recently sent layoff notices to 76 people, including 32 tenured professors, as part of its decision to eliminate 28 academic programs, many in fields like languages, landscape architecture and the arts .

Several other public institutions have announced or proposed program cuts, primarily in the humanities, including the University of Alaska, Eastern Kentucky University, North Dakota State University, University of Iowa State and the University of Kansas, according to to the Hechinger Report, an educational journal.

Miami University, a public institution in Oxford, Ohio, with 20,000 students, is reevaluating 18 undergraduate majors, each with fewer than 35 students enrolled, including French and German, studies American, art history, classical studies and religion.

These departments are dwarfed by computer science, which has 600 students enrolled; finance, with 1,400; marketing, with 1,200; and nursing, with nearly 700.

For the humanities faculty, “this is an existential crisis,” Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix, dean of the University of Miami, said in an interview. “There is so much pressure on return on investment. »

She said she hoped the subject matter, if not the majors, could be salvaged, perhaps by creating more interdisciplinary programs, such as cybersecurity and philosophy.

The change happened over decades. In 1970, according to federal statistics, degrees in education and social sciences and history were the most popular majors.

Today, the most popular degree is commerce, with 19 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, while social sciences come a distant second with only 8 percent of degrees.

Many courses on the endangered species list are also at odds with a growing conservative political agenda. And many public universities are reluctant to invite further scrutiny of their already stagnant public subsidies.

At the University of Miami, struggling degrees include critical race and ethnicity studies, social justice studies, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

Mr. White, the Republican auditor, said his first question was whether state spending on curriculum matched the needs of the economy. But he said he also wanted to know: “Are we paying or using taxpayer dollars to fund programs that teach the professor’s ideology, not just a skill set of how to approach problems of the world?

Liberal arts professors attempt to defend themselves, using arguments suited to a rapidly changing economy – while appealing to a more august view of life’s possibilities.

In a recent Youtube video – bluntly titled “Is a Humanities Degree Worth It?” — Jeffrey Cohen, dean of humanities at Arizona State University, champions his field as a path to not just a job but a life of career reinvention.

“Our students live in a time where the career they were trained for is probably not the one they will follow 10 years later,” Cohen says. According to him, studying the humanities will teach them to be agile.

At a recent panel discussion in New York sponsored by Plow, a Christian-oriented quarterly magazine, Roosevelt Montás, a lecturer in American studies and English at Columbia University, suggested that universities should oppose to a strictly careerist vision of education.

“It’s not true that all students want from college is work,” he said. They thirst for an education that “transforms them, an education that addresses their whole selves, not just a bank account.”

But this argument seems to fail almost everywhere.

Harvard, with an endowment of more than $50 billion, formed a strategic planning committee to examine social studies education. One idea, a university spokesperson said, would be to consolidate three language specializations into one super major: “languages, literatures and cultures.”

There is also collateral damage. In early October, Gettysburg College closed The Gettysburg Review. At its peak, the magazine, founded in 1988, published writers like EL Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates and Rita Dove. More recently, it has prided itself on publishing promising writers.

The magazine’s editors, Lauren Hohle and Mark Drew, were caught off guard when the university president told them they were being laid off.

“She said we weren’t meeting the core mission of the college,” Mr. Drew recalled. “I was going to say, ‘What is the main mission?’ I thought it was a liberal arts institution. But I was trying not to be sarcastic.

For Mr. Drew, The Review, with about 1,100 paying subscribers, was a symbol to the outside world of the college’s commitment to the humanities. But for the president of the university, Robert Iuliano, this revision constituted a financial pit which could have strengthened the university’s reputation among scholars, but to the detriment of students.

The magazine earned about $30,000 to $40,000 a year in subscription revenue, “and operating costs are about five times that,” he said.

“We’ve really thought about what it means to prepare students for today’s world,” he said, “because you know, it’s changing very quickly. ” That means, he added, offering courses that could be paired with “hands-on experiential opportunities.”

Mr. White, the Mississippi State Auditor, major He earned a doctorate in political science and economics at the University of Mississippi before becoming a Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Harvard Law School—a fine example, perhaps, of the value of the liberal arts.

But if he could do it again, he might change his major, he said, because “political science majors don’t require high salaries.” Working on a campaign or in government might be more valuable experience than the degree, he said.

Mr White said he personally would have liked to play acoustic guitar for a living. But he doubted his chances of success, given the small number of jobs available.

Then he seemed to reconsider his decision, conceding: “If you dig into the data, the music majors are doing pretty well, for one reason or another.” They go to work in schools, they go to work at universities or they work in churches.

So after reflection, he softened his message. “What I would say to students is don’t write off all liberal arts,” he said. “Don’t dismiss all fine arts.”

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