Recent Research Highlights the Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education

Posted By Eliana Osborn on February 24, 2016 at 10:23 am
Recent Research Highlights the Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education

College isn’t just about getting a job, although more education does generally lead to higher incomes and a better chance at employment.  But with so much money involved in pursuing a degree, it’s no wonder that much of the dialog lately focuses on school as an investment.

Richard A. Detweiler, president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, recently presented some new research at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.  He was interested to see if there is real value in a liberal arts education, whether a formal degree or just attending a school with that focus.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed attended Detweiler’s session and summarized the findings.  According to Jaschik, “The study’s initial results suggest that one can prove that a liberal arts-style education can be associated with greater odds, compared to others with bachelor’s degrees, on such qualities as being a leader, being seen as ethical, appreciating arts and culture and leading a fulfilling and happy life.”

When contacted by email, Detweiler explained that there are long-term benefits for students studying liberal arts.  “Most fundamentally, those who experienced an education in the tradition of the liberal arts, live their lives as adults in ways that have lasting value – they are lives of quality, based on values we cherish. They are the people who, throughout their lifetimes, provide leadership in our communities as well as in businesses and other organizations, who contribute to the betterment of society, and live with a sense of purpose and fulfillment. As a parent, there is nothing more, or better, that I would wish for my children – for them to live lives well lived – and I believe that is true for every parent. And it is also the character of today’s younger generation – they are people who want to learn to make a difference with their lives, and to contribute to a better world.”

In Detweiler’s study, 1,000 graduates were questioned 10, 20, or 40 years after graduation.  Some were from liberal arts colleges, while some were randomly sampled.  All were asked questions like, Did most of your professors know your name? Did you regularly spend class time discussing questions without single answers?  How often do you volunteer?  Do people seek you out as a mentor?  He also collected data about which kind of classes students enrolled in, within and outside their majors.

Some findings:

  • Adults with a liberal arts background were 30 to 100 percent more likely to show leadership.
  • Alumni of liberal arts schools were 26 to 66 percent more likely to be people who contribute to society (volunteering, charitable giving, etc.)
  • People were significantly more likely (25-35%) to be satisfied with their lives and view their professional and family lives as meaningful if they reported having undergraduate conversations with those who disagreed with them.

What Detweiler wants students and families to take away from his preliminary research? The importance of putting educational conversations into perspective.  “So much of the focus of attention is on the immediate and the financial – will I have a job when I graduate and how much will I be paid,” he notes. “This is understandable and reasonable as we have been living in a time of uncertainty. But it is truly important to take a longer view – to ask what kind of learning will contribute to one’s longer term success and fulfillment.”

“The financial payoff for a narrow, technical, education will be quicker, but over one’s lifetime that difference goes away. The world is changing rapidly, and the competencies and skills needed are changing equally quickly. Today’s expertise is largely irrelevant tomorrow. For example, from the research we know that people who take a larger number of courses outside their major do better in so many ways over their lifetimes – not just financially but in their contributions and sense of fulfillment. So, in thinking about choice of college, and choice of major, take the long view – it is an opportunity to plant the seeds that will grow into a life of meaning and fulfillment.”

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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