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Should job outcomes be the bottom line for higher education?

November 09, 2023
By: Michele Hujber

In Mississippi, the state auditor released a report  in September 2023 that rated academic degrees by whether the degree would lead to a well-paying job. He suggests that Mississippi invest more in programs in the subject areas leading to those high-paying, in-state jobs. Basing appropriations on immediate wage outcomes implies that near-term economic return is the only benefit that matters, and it is a theme that is recurring frequently. In contrast, liberal arts advocates take a more holistic view of the value of higher education.

Frederick M. Lawrence, secretary and CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, recently spoke with SSTI about the value of a liberal arts education. He maintained that “education prepares students for the lifelong learning for meaningful lives, for productive lives, and for engaged lives as citizens.”

"When we talk about a productive life," said Lawrence, "we talk about the skills of a particularly liberal arts education, such as learning how to think clearly, communicate effectively, analyze, research, and solve problems, work collaboratively, and work creatively." He noted that employers mention all these skills as important in surveys conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Click here to download an AAC&U report on this topic.

The companies needing these types of skills, he said, include the big technology companies, such as Facebook or X, the company formally known as Twitter. “Their challenges are not going to be solved by better coders,” he said. “They've got the best coders on the planet. The challenges are going to be solved, if at all, by sociologists, social psychologists, ethicists, philosophers, comparative literature, people and the like.”

When Lawrence hears the argument that the liberal arts are a luxury our society can't afford, he responds, "it is, in fact, a necessity for complicated times. If we are going to understand the world in which we live and ask questions such as, what is a fair society, what is a just society, what would that mean, what should the distribution of resources and distribution of healthcare facilities and ability look like, the liberal arts equip us to think about and to answer (those questions)."

But in many higher education institutions, liberal arts programs are on the chopping block. A December 2022 article from the Hechinger Report lists institutions, including The University of Alaska, Missouri Western State University, and Eastern Kentucky University, that have shut down English, history, philosophy, sociology, political science, art and other program. These and other institutions making similar cuts do not see enough value in these subjects, a perspective gaining acceptance. At a recent American Enterprise Institute (AEI) panel discussion on measuring the value of higher education, Preston Cooper, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, while admitting that there are some non-economic benefits to higher education, said the social benefits were "a nice add-on."

That higher education offers economic returns through employability at higher-wage jobs is not a new idea. "We know that economic return is not the only measure of education," Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, said during the AEI event. "But I'll just posit that it is actually the fundamental one that we as a society actually started with in the first place." He noted that the Morrill Act and the GI Bill focused on educating people to be ready for the workplace.

But, neither the Morrill Act nor the GI Bill excluded liberal arts programs. The Morrill Act of 1862 states in Section 4 that, while land grant institutions would teach agriculture and the mechanical arts, they would offer this curriculum "without excluding other scientific and classical studies." The GI Bill, signed in 1944, enabled an entire generation, “many of whom never dreamed of going beyond high school," Lawrence noted, going off to college. According to the National Archives, the GI Bill funded attendance at colleges and universities for approximately 2,300,000 vets. The number of degrees awarded by U.S. colleges and universities more than doubled between 1940 and 1950. And the percentage of Americans with bachelor’s degrees or advanced degrees rose from 4.6% in 1945 to 25% a half-century later. "Because the GI Bill sent them off to college and their minds were expanded, they went off and got PhDs," Lawrence said. "And then they're teaching English and philosophy and political science and economics."

Both the Morrill Act and the GI Bill ushered in booming economic times. "In the period after the Civil War, in the 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, (there was a) huge economic and political explosion, and America goes from something of a backwater to the beginnings of its role as a world power, and certainly (as a) first-rate economic power," said Lawrence.

But still, some policymakers support the idea that a program must have a clear, predefined path to employment at a predetermined wage to be deserving of funding from taxpayer sources. For example, at the AEI event, Cooper said that the return on investment should be at the center of how we evaluate value in higher education. He noted the cost: "If a program is getting federal funding, that can be $30 billion in Pell grants, $85 billion in federal student loans. … (That goes) out the door every year if that is going to fund programs that are not necessarily enabling students to get better jobs, pay back their loans….”

However, the idea that liberal arts degrees do not lead to jobs paying a decent living wage may be a misconception. Research from The American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAA&S) has found that in 2021, terminal bachelor’s degree holders (TBHs) in the humanities had annual median earnings of $64K, while the median for all workers with a terminal bachelor’s degree was $72K. Median earnings for humanities TBHs were 56% higher than those of workers with only a high school diploma ($41K).

State-level profiles from AAA&S show how the wages of humanities majors compare to those with only a high school degree and those with degrees in the natural sciences, engineering, and business. For example, humanities majors in West Virginia have a median income 44% higher ($56,841 per year) than those with just a high school degree ($39,351). Humanities majors in West Virginia may be making less than those who major in the natural sciences, engineering, and business, but one in four earns an annual salary of $84,454 or more. For more detailed information about the higher wages college graduates can expect, see the article Educational attainment and financial health” in this week’s SSTI Digest.

Liberal arts programs could face off against opposition to funding by focusing on a hybrid version that offers training in near-time job skills alongside more classical subjects. At the AEI panel discussion, David Troutman, Deputy Commissioner for Academic Affairs and Innovation for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, noted that policymakers can’t prevent students from majoring in psychology and sociology, “but we can change the educational experience. … We can think about the learning outcomes that exist in that program and how we could embed data science, project management, and different areas so that it can give them more agency once they receive that credential (to) go into the workforce and demonstrate to an employer, yes, I can provide you value."

higher ed, jobs, skills