Does focusing on liberal arts improve labor market outcomes?

Dive Brief: 

  • Low-income students who attend colleges with a greater focus on liberal arts education than other schools have a higher chance of becoming higher-income adults, suggests new research from Ithaka S+R

  • The researchers developed a framework to measure the extent to which colleges offer liberal arts experiences. They did not find a relationship between this type of education and several other labor market outcomes, including mid-career earnings and student debt repayment rates.  

  • The findings suggest that liberal arts experiences can be valuable for low-income students, the authors write, though schools that traditionally offer this type of education enroll a relatively small share of these learners. 

Dive Insight: 

Past studies have examined the labor market value of liberal arts colleges and majors, but the Ithaka S+R report contends these approaches don’t fully capture this type of education. 

“Students can receive a liberal education in many different circumstances at many different types of institutions, not just the elite  or even not so elite — liberal arts colleges,” said Daniel Rossman, a researcher at Ithaka S+R and co-author of the report

The researchers scored schools on three elements of liberal arts education: 

  • How much their pedagogical approach includes engagement with content experts.

  • Whether their curriculum exposes students to various academic disciplines. 

  • The degree to which they foster communities with diverse perspectives. 

Although traditional liberal arts colleges tended to receive high scores, other institutions did as well. 

The report calls out the University of Minnesota, Morris as an example of a public institution that scored high because of its emphasis on collaboration between students and faculty. And while community colleges focus on professional training and have nonresidential campuses, the New York City College of Technology also scored well, the report notes. The researchers removed two-year schools from the overall analysis because of a lack of data, however. 

Previous research has yielded mixed results about the value of liberal arts education. 

Liberal arts colleges have one of the highest long-term returns out of the 14 institution types from the Carnegie Classification system, a report earlier this year from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found. Only doctoral universities with the two highest levels of research activity ranked higher. 

While liberal arts majors don’t go on to earn as much as STEM or healthcare majors, they earn about $20,000 more annually than the average high school graduate, according to a 2019 report from Strada Education Network.

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