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Value of Liberal Arts Degrees Endures, Even in Downturn

January 12, 2010 10:34 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Many students turn to practical or technical degrees in tough economic times, but others find liberal arts degrees to be more valuable than ever.

Liberal Arts Degrees Emphasize Innovative Thinking

In a column for Newsweek, editor Jon Meacham discusses how uncomfortable it can be to promote expensive liberal arts colleges in a downturn. The current economic climate “favors efficiency and tangibility,” the types of skills not necessarily picked up in a Shakespeare or philosophy class. 

But is there a possibility that the creativity and ingenuity fostered at liberal arts institutions will become increasingly valuable in this new economy? Meacham thinks so. He asserts that the ability “to connect ideas that might otherwise have gone unconnected” could become even more crucial for job seekers.

To that end, larger state universities, including schools in Michigan and Georgia, are establishing “public honors colleges within large research institutions” in order to make the liberal arts more accessible. Online education is another growing market for the liberal arts, one that Meacham calls “one of the great democratizing stories of recent years.”

Cash-Strapped Students Hesitate to Invest in Liberal Arts Degrees

Could the downturn undo this democratization of liberal arts? Valerie Saturen, for In These Times, asserts that increased costs have made students fearful that “liberal arts degrees are not worth the price tag.” Saturen suggests that a liberal arts education could become even more unattainable to the middle class, as financial concerns cause more students put off or decide against college altogether. 

Some liberal arts colleges had already changed things up before the downturn, adding practical components in an attempt to woo cash-strapped students. According to Saturen, Richard M. Freeland, the commissioner of Massachusetts Higher Education, is focused on connecting “liberal arts and professional programs” with things like internships and “experiential education.” Freeland thinks that “practical skills can complement the traditional goals” of liberal arts education, and perhaps make such degrees more appealing.

But whether this approach will undermine the “core mission” of liberal arts education remains to be seen, Saturen reports.

How Students and Schools Respond in a Poor Economy

It’s no surprise that the liberal arts have come under fire. As the Wisconsin State Journal explains, “Technical colleges often boom during recessions, when displaced workers look for retraining and new careers.” Madison College, a technical school, has seen a more than 10 percent enrollment spike, for example.

Likewise in November 2001, when the economy was reeling and students realized their liberal arts degrees might not translate into jobs, even Yale University graduates were looking for alternatives. According to The New York Times, many were applying to the Peace Corps or moving back home with parents to look for temporary positions. 

Nine liberal arts colleges closed in 2008, according to USA Today, contributing to greater anxiety among students. In an April 2009 editorial for Mount Holyoke News, Maddy Starbranch wondered, “[H]ow practical is a liberal arts degree in this economy? Would we be better served taking technical courses or even having a technical degree?” Starbranch suggests that, due to the slow economy, liberal arts colleges like Mount Holyoke might need to update their offerings.

New Economy Brings Shift in Thinking Toward Liberal Arts

But something else seems to be occurring during this recession: a changed attitude among technical schools that may reflect an altered student perception of the value of a liberal arts education.

Instead of merely capitalizing on increased enrollment, some booming technical schools like Madison College are expanding their offerings. Madison College has begun embracing “its liberal arts role along a student’s path to a four-year degree,” including offering associate programs alongside “its traditional offerings on the technical front,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Along the same lines, Dan Edelstein, an assistant professor of French at Stanford University, makes the case for liberal arts in a column for Inside Higher Ed. Despite the “growing anxiety among educators and policy makers” regarding the lack of American science and engineering graduates, Edelstein questions whether the humanities are “really only good for soft skills and vague ideals.”

He asserts that the “lessons in innovation” and allowances for “creative expression” intrinsic to arts and humanities programs are just as valuable as skills emphasized by science or engineering degrees. Liberal arts students "learn how to examine topics under new light,” and regardless of which career they pursue, “this primary training in innovative thought will help them imagine, invent, and create the world of the future,” Edelstein writes.

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