As a dean, I often hear talk about the “return on investment” from a college education, especially for students majoring in the liberal arts. As an economist, I do not have a particular problem with this concept, so long as the returns on education are measured broadly and completely enough. For example, if one looks only at the pecuniary benefits of an education one is missing some of its most important outcomes and would be greatly undervaluing the return on investment. A discussion of the many nonpecuniary benefits of a liberal arts education could easily fill several more columns. I will leave that discussion to a later date and focus here only on the financial benefits.
Even when discussing the financial benefits, many people, including the national media, make a serious error in focusing exclusively on the first job for which the college senior is prepared. While everyone is relieved when the graduate finds that first paid position, the most important thing about that job is that it leads to a second one, which leads to a third and so on. I am reminded of this fact on the many happy occasions when I run into a former student. Among other of their life’s details, I am always interested to learn where their career paths have taken them. While I never could have predicted in advance where their paths would lead, I am never surprised by even the most unexpected of outcomes. This is because I know that their liberal arts education has prepared them for just about anything.
As a result of their liberal arts education, students do not receive only a limited body of knowledge with which they might practice a profession. Were that the case, many people who graduated 20 years ago would no longer be employable, since the profession for which they might have thought to be training no longer exists. That they still are employable, and that students of today will continue to be employable 20 years in the future, has little to do with any job-related information they may have received and much more to do with important skills they learned. These would include critical-thinking skills, problem-solving skills and the ability to consider new ideas on one’s own – to become a lifelong learner.
I believe these learned skills, and others, are the ones that lead our students successfully along their career paths. I was reminded of this fact while reading this year’s Star Tribune feature on 10 Minnesota business leaders to watch in 2013. For those featured, the single most popular college major field of study was history, a major chosen by three of the 10. Other majors included psychology, political science and philosophy.
Obviously, liberal arts graduates do not begin their careers at the top, but the skills they learn in college help lead them there. Let’s be sure to include that fact when calculating the return on investment.
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