In an era defined by technological advancements and the rise of specialized, professional programs, the value of a liberal arts education is under siege. As reported by the Globe’s Hilary Burns, the decline of liberal arts education is not a mere illusion but a well-documented reality. Small New England liberal arts colleges are disappearing, and plans to eliminate liberal arts programs at Simmons and Lasell universities are underway. This shift is not without resistance, however, with presidents of liberal arts colleges staunchly defending the value of their education, even as other institutions pivot towards professionally focused programs.
The pressure on liberal arts is largely driven by the skyrocketing costs of higher education, which have outpaced inflation by twice the rate over the decades. The cost of a bachelor’s degree can exceed $500,000, factoring in interest and income lost during study time. This financial burden has made pursuing degrees in fields like English, Art History, or Philosophy appear as luxuries that many students simply cannot afford. This trend is disconcerting when we consider the economic value of a liberal arts education, which fosters a workforce adaptable and flexible enough to meet the demands of a rapidly changing economy.
The Decline of Liberal Arts Education and its Economic Implications
As the economy evolves and the cost of higher education rises, liberal arts education faces significant challenges and a marked decline. This trend has been notably documented by Hilary Burns of the Globe, especially in small New England liberal arts colleges. Despite the mounting pressure, the value of liberal arts education remains significant, both for individuals and the broader economy.
The Rising Cost of Higher Education
The cost of higher education has soared over the past decades, outpacing inflation by almost double. To put this in perspective, tuition at a small liberal arts college that used to cost between $5,000 and $6,000 a year, now approaches $65,000. This increase has been attributed to several factors including more student services, increased regulation, and greater access to loans and grants, which have made it easier for families to accept tuition increases.
State flagship universities have also contributed to the cost surge, investing heavily in new buildings, sports programs, and administrative payrolls. Consequently, the cost of a bachelor’s degree could top $500,000 when accounting for lost income while studying. This financial burden makes studying English, art history, and philosophy a luxury many students can’t afford.
The Economic Case for Liberal Arts Education
Despite the cost, liberal arts education holds significant economic value. Our fast-paced economy requires a workforce that can adapt to new technologies, markets, and business conditions. The very nature of a liberal arts education, which fosters independent, critical thinking and a breadth of knowledge, produces adaptable, flexible workers.
A study by Georgetown University supports this claim, showing that over 40 years, liberal arts colleges yield a return on investment for their graduates that is 25 percent higher than that of all colleges. However, the short-term financial pressure, especially in the first 10 years after graduation, can be daunting as the return on investment from liberal arts colleges is 40 percent below that of all colleges.
The Way Forward
The solution to preserving liberal arts education lies in reducing costs. Proposals include more state and federal support for higher education, expanded roles for low-cost community colleges, and accelerated public service loan forgiveness programs. Additionally, more prudent spending by colleges and universities could go a long way.
While society might not necessarily need more English and history majors, there is a growing need for people who can discern between fiction and fact. The decline of liberal arts education is not just an educational issue. It’s an economic one that requires urgent attention.
The decline of liberal arts education could have far-reaching economic implications. While specialized fields like business, computer science, and engineering offer lucrative career paths, the broader, critical thinking skills fostered by a liberal arts education are essential in a rapidly changing economy. As such, efforts to reduce the cost of higher education and preserve liberal arts programs are paramount.