Higher ed liberal arts degrees on the upswing

How new data helps schools make the ROI case

Despite the big push for STEM majors and career-focused skills in recent years, the liberal arts seem to be making a resurgence. Liberal arts degree programs in 2016 ranked No. 1 for most completions as well as for the biggest increase in completions, higher ed consulting firm Gray Associates found in a recent analysis of IPEDS preliminary data.

Liberal arts and sciences associate degrees led all 1,400-plus IPEDS Classification of Instructional programs with 251,393 completions. Among academic program groups, postbaccalaureate certificates in liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities had the biggest growth—56 percent (see chart).

“We were surprised to see the bump up in completions for liberal arts,” says Bob Atkins, CEO and founder of Gray Associates.

Sidebar: Slideshow of wall of recognition displays

Driving the growth may be several factors, but what he finds more compelling is that the findings can provide administrators with a data-supported way to illustrate the value 
of liberal arts.

“Liberal arts institutions have indeed struggled with conveying the complex notion of ROI on a liberal arts education,” says David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“Studies like this can play a vital role in equipping admission offices with information they can use to assure students and families that the investment they make in their education pays dividends down the road.”

Here are some ways these insights can help institutional leaders with program planning and strategic marketing communications:

Reinforce the assertion that liberal arts degrees have high ROI potential.

“Many students and families are primarily concerned about salaries. Since completion is tied to higher salaries in general, this study provides an important and direct link to future earnings potential,” says Hawkins.

Institutions can also provide this link. The University of Texas System’s seekUT database tool, for example, educates students about how graduates are faring, including those with liberal arts degrees.

  • Action plan: “A college must demonstrate the desirable outcomes of its own liberal arts graduates’ experience,” says John Lawlor, founder of The Lawlor Group, an education marketing solutions firm. Campus career services professionals, in collaboration with the alumni office and academic departments, could share what the institution’s liberal arts grads have done professionally—via a “wall of recognition” display (such as at Thomas College, above) or through events that create mentoring relationships between current students and successful alumni.

Position liberal arts and technical-based education as interdependent.

“Debating liberal arts versus technical education doesn’t work in the machine-learning age,” says Rich Feller, a professor of counseling and career development at Colorado State University.

Critical thinkers, strong communicators and problem solvers need technology literacy skills—and the technically talented need a strong liberal arts foundation, adds Feller, who is past president of the National Career Development Association.  

  • Action plan: Rich experiential learning within liberal arts can help produce career readiness, says Hawkins. One example is The Connections Program at Connecticut College, which aims to reinvent the liberal arts curriculum so students can integrate their specific interests and focus on interdisciplinary thinking.

Connect the dots from liberal arts to the workplace.

“Many of the skills required in any profession—oral communications, critical thinking, writing and understanding other cultures—turn out to be liberal arts skills,” says Atkins of Gray Associates, adding that these workplace essentials tend to get lost a little bit in technical education.

  • Action plan: “Be proactive in reaching out to employers and influencers about the real skills that liberal arts graduates possess, and coach students in how to talk about the relevance of these skills as they prepare for a job search,” says Lawlor. Overall, he adds, the study data—when paired with anecdotal evidence from graduates and employers—can arm institutions with more evidence that a liberal arts education is still quite relevant. 

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