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  • Dispelling the Myths Surrounding a Liberal Arts Education

    March 09, 2016 | By NACE Staff

    Trends & Predictions
    A college student reads a book on the campus lawn.

    TAGS: graduate outcomes, counseling, surveys, liberal arts, spotlight

    Spotlight for Career Services Professionals

    To defend against the frequent attacks on the career viability of a liberal arts education, Richard Detweiler was looking to generate data and insight that shows a direct link between the undergraduate experience and success in career and life.

    The results of his recent study has given him ample information to counter critics’ arguments.

    Detweiler, president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association and founder of the Global Liberal Arts Alliance, will present his findings and detail their significance during NACE16. He’s also writing a book based on his research.

    “The argument against the liberal arts is that it is impractical and not useful,” Detweiler says. “Critics say we need to train people for professions because it will benefit the economy and students will be able to generate wealth for themselves.”

    Although the cry’s volume tends to wax and wane with the state of the economy, the overarching belief among detractors—including governors who have eliminated state-funded liberal arts programs—is that a liberal arts education won’t allow the next generation of graduates to earn a productive living.

    That’s simply not true, Detweiler says, noting that he now has the data to support his counter. To quantify the impact an undergraduate education has on people over the course of a lifetime, Detweiler performed a cross-sectional study of 1,000 college graduates—some from liberal arts colleges and others from a random sample of U.S. colleges—at 10, 20, and 40 years post-graduation.

    “The study asked questions about their undergraduate educational experiences and about their lives since college in an objective fashion,” Detweiler says. “This is not based on their opinions about college or life, but their reports of their own actual experience and behavior.”

    In gathering his data, Detweiler also dispelled several myths: that there aren’t employment opportunities after college for liberal arts majors, that the competencies liberal arts graduates developed in college don’t end up being useful, and that the liberal arts is not a path to lifetime success.

    “What I found is that any disadvantage to being a liberal arts major in terms of salary is short-term and disappears quickly,” Detweiler says. “On average, liberal arts majors have a somewhat lower income in their very first jobs than technically trained students, but very quickly after that, salaries match. Over time, liberal arts majors have much larger salary increases.”

    Beyond salary, Detweiler found that liberal arts graduates are more likely to be leaders, contributors, and civically engaged than those college graduates who, he says, didn’t have liberal arts graduates’ “breadth and range of education.”

    “Studying in the liberal arts truly is a route to a successful future,” Detweiler adds. “It’s not something that has to be made up for, but, over time, it does pay off with a more viable future than these graduates might have had if they specialized more.”

    Richard Detweiler will present “The Liberal Arts Surprise: Guidance to Students and their Employers” during NACE16.