Looking for quantitative proof of the value of a liberal arts degree? Look no further.

Faculty interaction, class discussions associated with positive student outcomes

Politicians, parents, and students are occasionally skeptical about the value of the liberal arts.

In the face of such criticism, a growing research trend has sought to quantify that value. Richard A. Detweiler, the president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, is one of the researchers working on the project. He gave a preview of his upcoming research at a recent meeting, Scott Jaschik reports for Inside Higher Ed.

Detweiler started by defining the liberal arts experience. He examined 238 mission statements from liberal arts colleges, looking for trends. Using these as guidance, Detweiler and his colleagues interviewed 1,000 college graduates, roughly half of whom attended liberal arts schools. The interviewees had graduated between 10 and 40 years prior. 

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So far, Detweiler and his team have learned that:

  • Graduates who discussed peace, justice, or human rights outside of class in school are 27% to 52% more likely to be leaders;
  • Graduates whose professors knew their names and who spoke frequently with faculty members outside of the classroom are 32% to 90% more likely to report feeling personally fulfilled;
  • Graduates who participated in philosophical or ethical discussions in school and took ample humanities classes are 25% to 60% more likely than others to volunteer, give to nonprofit groups, and become otherwise altruistic; and
  • Graduates who say their college professors encouraged them to examine strengths and weaknesses of different viewpoints and to question "correct" answers in school are 25% to 40% more likely to report feeling personally fulfilled in their lives. 

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Earnings: The elephant in the room?

Yes, liberal arts grads do earn less money than their non-liberal arts peers, according to Detweiler's research.  But they also found that this is only true for the first few years after graduation.

Eventually, graduates who took more than 50% of their courses in subjects outside their majors end up 31% to 72% more likely to make over $100,000.

Detweiler says his research should encourage liberal arts colleges to continue thinking about what their students are up to outside of the classroom (Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 1/9).

What the liberal arts mean for the 21st century

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