Here’s the nightmare scenario for many parents of college students. Suzie comes home from her $50,000-a-year university to tell you this: “Mom, Dad, I’ve decided I want to major in early Renaissance poetry.”
In popular lore, a liberal arts major is held to be a prescription for poverty in the hard-charged information economy we now live in.
But a new report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Services says it may not be as bad as you think.
Inside Higher Ed sums up the report this way: “By their mid-50s, liberal arts majors with an advanced or undergraduate degree are on average making more money than those who studied in professional and pre-professional fields, and are employed at similar rates.”
In short, while liberal arts majors may start off more slowly, over the long run they hold their own.
Now, it’s true that compared to engineers and math and science grads, those with liberal arts degrees lag behind in earnings.
But the findings also point to something too many of the debates on college miss: The real test for both college and life is whether students are learning.
In a book released three years ago, NYU Professor Richard Arum noted that 36 percent of college students show “little or no evidence of improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing” after four years of college.
Even worse, students with degrees that parents might regard as more practical—business, communications, social work, education—had, according to Arum, “the lowest measurable gains.”
By contrast, “students majoring in traditional liberal arts fields” demonstrated significant gains in these areas.
The American Council for Trustees and Alumni has been making this point for years: A genuine education depends on a real and demanding curriculum that is the only way to develop young minds so they can realize their full potential.
So, Mom and Dad, here’s the bottom line: It’s not that liberal arts are not practical. It’s that it’s worthless to pay tens of thousands of dollars to put your sons and daughters through college if they are not going to take courses that require them to work hard, master the knowledge and learn how to think.