A Novel Approach to Studying and Measuring a Liberal Education and its Economic Value
In response to growing public skepticism about the value of a liberal education, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has funded a series of studies investigating the long-term effects of a liberal education on various outcomes such as health, civic engagement, and cognitive development. Ithaka S+R’s first contribution to the series was a study published in 2019 examining the economic benefits and costs of a liberal education, as this particular focus is most commonly used to argue for and against its relevance and utility. Using liberal arts colleges as a proxy for whether a student received a liberal education, the study’s authors, Catharine Bond Hill and Elizabeth Davidson Pisacreta, argued that the existing research on the topic did not support liberal arts critics’ claims that the high price of attending such colleges outweighed students’ earnings later in life. They concluded the report by recommending that future research on the topic move beyond using liberal arts colleges (and liberal arts majors) as proxies for whether a student received a liberal education, since students may experience such an education across diverse sectors of postsecondary education.
Building off that recommendation, Ithaka S+R undertook a follow-up exploratory study funded by the Mellon Foundation that aimed to better capture the experiences and features of a liberal education, and its relationship with students’ labor market outcomes. Today, we are excited to publish a report summarizing the study and our findings, accompanied by supporting materials that provide additional details on our new approach to measuring a liberal education, all of which are available on our website. Specifically, we have developed a novel and nuanced framework, the Liberal Arts and Sciences Educational Offering (LASEO) Framework, to identify and describe the core features of an undergraduate liberal arts and sciences educational experience and subsequently measure them. Our framework describes a liberal arts and sciences education as a tradition of learning whose mission is to expose learners to academic curricula across the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences; employ engaging teaching and learning practices within intimate settings that foster community and expose students to diverse perspectives; and develop a foundation for self-directed lifelong learning. As such, its key features are organized under its core components of pedagogy, community, and curriculum.
Using this framework, we produced a set of LASEO Index Scores capturing the degree to which a subset of 454 four-year institutions in the United States offered their students a liberal arts and sciences educational experience in the early 2000s, as well as for a subsample of 340 institutions that are not classified as liberal arts institutions. We then examined whether differences in institutions’ LASEO scores are associated with short-term academic and long-term labor market outcomes for their students, at the institutional level.
Overall, the findings do not support, and may even run counter, to the claim that a liberal arts and sciences education does not prepare students for the twenty-first-century job market or for economically-viable careers. The findings also suggest that liberal arts and sciences educational experiences may provide value-added for low-income students in particular. A complete description of our findings and the study’s results and limitations are provided in the report.
In light of these findings, we believe there is much value in continuing to pursue research and practice that furthers our knowledge in this area, and to support such educational offerings in the meantime. Follow-up research would benefit from additional and expanded applications of our framework and approach, including studying other types of institutions and conducting similar analyses using student-level data. Researchers should also explore and analyze the institutional conditions and practices that influence those educational offerings and their take-up by students, how they can be made more widely available to students who may stand to benefit the most, and how they can be translated to virtual contexts.
We invite you to read the report, and to provide feedback on the LASEO Framework and LASEO Index Scores, as well as your recommendations for additional applications of our approach to better understand the value of a liberal education. You can leave a comment below, or contact us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.