The Value Of Liberal Arts Skills


An interesting article in USA Today reports on a study confirming the intuition that the sorts of skills honed by – or at least needed to do well in – a liberal arts education gives people a leg up in life:

Recent college graduates who as seniors scored highest on a standardized test to measure how well they think, reason and write — skills most associated with a liberal arts education — were far more likely to be better off financially than those who scored lowest, says the survey, released Wednesday by the Social Science Research Council, an independent organization.

It found that students who had mastered the ability to think critically, reason analytically and write effectively by their senior year were:

•Three times less likely to be unemployed than those who hadn’t (3.1% vs. 9.6%).

•Half as likely to be living with their parents (18% vs. 35%).

•Far less likely to have amassed credit card debt (37% vs. 51%).

Grades and other factors influence a student’s chances of success, too. Graduates of colleges with tougher admissions standards tended to have fewer debts and were less likely to live with their parents, the study found.

A report this month by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which studies the labor-market value of college degrees, found that recent graduates with a bachelor’s degree in architecture had the highest average jobless rate (13.9%, vs. 8.9% for all recent college graduates). Education and health care majors had some of the lowest jobless rates.

The findings released Wednesday “show something new and different,” says lead author Richard Arum, a New York University professor. “Students would do well to appreciate the extent to which their development of general skills, not just majors and institution attended, is related to successful adult transitions.”

This is likely be a morale-boost for many university professors, who tend to feel under-appreciated and certainly underpaid. Unfortunately, there is no data on whether those high-scoring students picked up their liberal arts skills in college, or whether they’d already entered college with them-

Arum also cautions that the study doesn’t speak to whether high-scoring graduates picked up their skills while in college. It follows up on research last year showing that 36% of college graduates showed few or no gains in learning between their freshman and senior years.

It would be nice to know what proportion of that 36% showing few or no gains in learning over their college years were in the high-scoring group, and whether the sort of learning tested in that previous study focused on skills or discipline-specific knowledge; without this further information, little can be inferred from the juxtaposition of the two studies.