A few days ago a friend of mine from college sent me a link to a new study issued by PayScale. The study evaluates all colleges and universities around the country based on the return on investment (ROI) graduates realized over 30 years. Our alma mater, Claremont McKenna, finished 11th on the list, and my friend was justifiably pleased the $120,000 it cost 15 years ago would, on average, be vindicated based on the study’s findings.
But what was most interesting to me was that Claremont McKenna was not the only liberal arts college on the list. Haverford was No. 24 and Williams ranked No. 17. In fact, the No. 1 college on the list is Harvey Mudd, which despite specializing in engineering, is still a liberal arts college.
I am sure upon closer inspection there would be critiques of PayScale’s methodology, and not surprisingly engineering schools appeared disproportionately on this list; but what struck me was how some defenders of liberal arts still downplay the goal of preparing students for success in the workforce. Under the threat of increased regulation, defenders claim what is truly unique about the liberal arts is its ability to fuel the love of learning, greater civic participation, or other lofty (albeit difficult to measure) goals.
But while we should all be concerned about increasing government intrusion in higher education, the PayScale study suggests outstanding colleges can focus on the liberal arts, promote teaching and undergraduate education, and prepare graduates intentionally for success in the labor market.
The other reminder the study brings to mind is that vocational education ought to enjoy a more expansive definition than it does today, and one that is more celebrated. Ask most experts to define vocational education and they will typically cite job-training programs at community colleges. But really what these elite institutions on the PayScale list are doing is preparing their graduates to succeed in the workforce, and marketing the career options that will be available to students if they matriculate at Claremont or Williams. And even if you don’t enter the workforce right away, top colleges also tout their ability to help students gain admission to the best business and law schools around the country.
Last week, Inside Higher Ed profiled Colorado College and how it is introducing an education degree to undergrad students to prepare them to enter the workforce as outstanding teachers. Colorado College saw no contradiction in applying the liberal arts model—smaller class size, close interaction with faculty, and interdisciplinary focus—to a non-liberal arts degree like education. Many liberal arts colleges are already offering programs in professional fields, like finance or business.
Liberal arts colleges are right to be skeptical of mounting government regulation. But a closer look at what is going on at the best of these schools—especially in a still-tight labor market for freshly minted college graduates—reveals they are as closely focused on preparing their students for success in the labor market as other schools.
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