Understanding the Value of the Liberal Arts
Last year, Catharine Bond Hill and Elizabeth Davidson Pisacreta undertook a study on the economic benefits and costs of a liberal arts education on behalf of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
As they note in the report, critics claim that the value of a liberal arts education–in terms of both the increasing costs to delivering higher education and in students’ diminished earnings–is limited, especially compared to alternative options such as pre-professional programs. But, as Hill and Pisacreta argue, existing evidence does not support these conclusions. The report concluded, moreover, that the empirical evidence is limited and that future research is necessary (for a great summary of the report, see Scott Jaschik’s article in Inside Higher Ed). In particular, the authors highlight that attending a liberal arts college is not necessarily a good proxy for whether a student received a liberal arts education per se.
To that end, I’m excited to announce that, thanks to additional funding from the Mellon Foundation, we are embarking on a second study on the value of the liberal arts. Specifically, we examine the value of a liberal arts educational experience, whether delivered by a liberal arts college or not, by asking three questions:
- What are the features that define a liberal arts education and how prevalent are they across all higher ed institutions in the US?
- Are the features of a liberal arts education at the institutional level associated with positive outcomes for students, including retention and graduation rates and earnings in later life?
- At the individual student level, how does the exposure to particular features of a liberal arts education relate to students’ educational experiences and outcomes?
Ultimately, this research is intended to shed light on an issue that has long remained ambiguous: how a liberal arts education benefits students. As we develop evidence-based findings on how outcomes for students who experience a liberal arts education compare to the outcomes of other students, this research will enable the higher education sector to make more sophisticated decisions about the value and trade-offs of liberal arts education.