November 26, 2018
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Liberal arts graduates fare well in the workplace, according to a report released Jan. 22. They earn a higher income over time than those with professional and pre-professional degrees and are employed at similar rates.
The report, conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, tracks the earnings and career paths of college graduates with different majors. It is designed to answer the questions often posed by students, parents and policy makers concerned about the value of a college degree, particularly in the liberal arts.
S. Georgia Nugent, former Kenyon president and a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges, hopes that these findings will put those concerns to rest. “The facts are that liberal arts graduates are leaving school with manageable debt and they are finding jobs,” she said in a column for the Huffington Post, “Debunking the Myths of a Liberal Arts Education.” The success of many in our culture is based on an educational foundation “solidly from the liberal arts,” she said.
While liberal arts majors may start off more slowly than others in the years immediately following graduation, making $5,000 less than professional and pre-professional majors, they win in the long term, earning $2,000 more than other graduates by their mid-50s, and $40,000 more than they did as recent graduates.
This news does not surprise Nugent, who emphasizes that a liberal arts education trains students for “continued, lifelong learning,” which, she said, “is more practical than training in a specific skill that may well be obsolete almost upon graduation.”
Liberal arts majors also close the unemployment gap over time. The unemployment rate for these graduates drops to 3.5 percent at age 40 from 5.2 percent after graduation—a similar rate for professional and pre-professional graduates.
Though these findings support Nugent’s long-held conviction in the value of a liberal arts degree, she does not want to lose sight of higher education’s larger purpose. "In public discourse, we seem to have lost all sight of higher education having anything to do with anything other than making the most possible money," she said.
President Sean Decatur, who succeeded Nugent, agrees. “The emphasis on salary and earnings also leaves out the long-term impact that individuals have on society,” he said in his blog. “One may earn a relatively small salary as a teacher, but if one excels at teaching, the total, long-term impact one can have on society is very substantial. The desired outcomes of a Kenyon education…are not measured by salary alone.”