Students still value career-oriented education over liberal arts experiences, research finds

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Dive Brief:

  • Incoming college students can correctly identify the tenets of the liberal arts, but many think they can find that type of education anywhere, which bodes poorly for this set of institutions and their market position, according to new research from consultancy Art & Science Group.
  • The consultant interviewed more than 750 U.S. high school seniors this year and found nearly 60% believe you can find a liberal arts education at any type of institution. That’s about the share of students who said the same when Art & Science Group conducted similar research in 2017.
  • The organization’s data also suggests students want an education that directly prepares them for a job much more highly than they value the concept of a liberal arts experience. So “it remains the case, in terms of broad market appeal, that no advantage, and some potential disadvantage, accrues to an institution laying claim to the ‘liberal arts,’” Art & Science Group wrote in its report. 

Dive Insight:

Students and families have grown skeptical of the merits of a liberal arts education, often pursuing majors with clearer links to the job market, such as STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math. 

Liberal arts colleges, which make up a significant share of nonprofit institutions in the U.S., often fight the idea that they are devoted to fluffy academic pursuits with little return on students’ investment.

The positive value proposition of the liberal arts has been documented. 

Liberal arts colleges often offer a better return on investment than other institution types — though not immediately, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found in 2020. Students at liberal arts institutions have a median return of investment of $62,000 after a decade, lower than many other colleges. However, after 40 years, their median return on investment rises to $918,000 versus a median $723,000 for all institutions.

Against that backdrop, college leaders frequently monitor changing student and parent attitudes toward liberal arts institutions.

Art & Science Group found in 2017 that only 38% of students believed liberal arts was the best type of education for them, versus 35% who disagreed with that sentiment. The remaining 27% had no opinion or didn’t know.

Those shares changed with the 2022 research, with 43% of students saying they agreed liberal arts education was best for them, compared to 20% who disagreed. 

At first glance, this might appear like a win for the liberal arts. But as the consultant notes, the shifts “occur not so much in the proportions of students agreeing that liberal arts is best for them, as in the decrease of those disagreeing with this proposition.”

And about three-quarters of students agree with the statement that a college education that prepares them for a job is the best kind, versus only 31% who agree with the idea that employers want graduates with a liberal arts background. 

Further, while the stigma around liberal arts may be lessening slightly, it’s harder for liberal arts institutions to differentiate themselves, said Craig Goebel, principal at Art & Science Group. 

Goebel said all types of institutions, including large research universities, have taken up liberal arts. And so students don’t feel bound to attend liberal arts colleges to get those experiences, he said. 

Students’ attitudes toward liberal arts might have improved in part because so many different types of institutions are marketing it widely, Goebel said. 

Liberal arts colleges need to stand out in some way, not by what type of college they are, but other, individualized characteristics, he said. A liberal arts college should focus on a strategic direction, for instance, homing in on global perspectives or leadership initiatives, Goebel said.

“The more institutions want to do all things better, the less they’re known for anything in particular, and the weaker their market position will be,” he said.

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