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Free college won’t revive the liberal arts

Greg Nash

The continued pace of technological change, most recently seen in the proliferation of artificial intelligence and automation, has elevated the salience of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees. Some have argued that these latest trends are the nail in the coffin of the liberal arts.

But liberal arts degrees are still alive and as relevant as ever. Although the proportion of college graduates with a liberal arts degree remained steady, at 22 percent between 2009 and 2018, the share of college graduates grew from 27 percent in 2006 to 33 percent in 2018, according to Census Bureau estimates. That means that the overall number of liberal arts majors has still grown. Others argue that, while important, technical skills alone are insufficient: Non-cognitive skills are in-demand independent of economic activity.

But profound changes within higher education have taken place over the past two decades with the proliferation of new liberal arts degree programs. For example, professors Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath at California State University authored “Who Killed Homer: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom,” chronicling the expansion of programs in critical theory, feminism and identity politics. These programs have generated controversial culture wars.

Meanwhile, student outcomes have deteriorated. In fact, a national 2018 survey found that roughly 40 percent of employers rate recent college graduates as proficient in professionalism and work ethic and oral and written communications. Just 33 percent of employers believe their college graduates are proficient in leadership skills.

We know that student debt reached an all-time high in 2019 and that higher education is facing a crisis in confidence, driven by rising costs and a concern about its value. This has prompted many of the current Democratic presidential candidates to advocate for “free college” as a solution.

Although liberal arts degrees are critiqued (sometimes with reasonable points) for weaker job market opportunities, these differences often reflect unobserved factors about the types of occupations that workers sort into. If a liberal arts major is more likely to go into teaching over, say, investment banking, that might reflect differences in preferences, rather than differences in career preparation.

Using millions of data points from the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, I found that, after controlling for differences in demographics and occupational choice, liberal arts majors earn only 2.4 percent less per hour than other college graduates with other degrees. Moreover, given that earnings among liberal arts majors ends up converging to, and even surpassing, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors’ earnings mid-career, these differences can end up being a wash in the long-run.

But these aggregate numbers mask systematic differences among the array of liberal arts degrees. To investigate differences in prospective earnings capabilities of students in these different majors, consider the College Salary Report, which provides information about the value of skills in the marketplace.

Take, for instance, a degree in gender studies, which provides an early career payoff of $42,300 and a mid-career payoff of $57,100. That ranks 772, behind many traditional language degrees, such as German, ranking 368 with $83,400 in mid-career pay. Gender studies ranks similarly to many other careers in teaching, such as teaching as a second language and elementary teaching. Both of these arguably confer important social benefits in the dissemination of skills, particularly to youth.

Compare these with other liberal arts degrees that pay much more, such as economics and applied mathematics, which rank 96 and 64, respectively, and provide mid-career pay of $107,800 and $113,900.

The fact that certain degrees lead to much greater payoffs, on average, than others doesn’t mean every prospective undergraduate should major in applied economics and management — the highest-ranking liberal arts degree, with an average mid-career salary of $140,000. But the fact that different degrees lead to such stark differences in earnings capabilities is important for universities to consider when introducing new programs and counseling students about their majors.

Consider that the number of graduates in women’s studies grew by nearly 12 percent between 2014 and 2017, whereas the number of graduates in economics grew by only 7 percent. That’s in light of the fact that economics pays nearly twice as much mid-career, raising concerns about whether some universities are counseling their students in a way that prepares them financially for the future.

Student debt can be a weighty factor that leads to lower lifetime wealth and health outcomes. In addition to training students with skills that are valued in the marketplace, many universities are implicitly forcing them into high-revenue colleges, such as economics and political science departments, to subsidize the education of their peers in lower-revenue colleges.

How are students paying for these degrees? New evidence from Jason Delisle at the American Enterprise Institute shows that high-income borrowers are not only just as likely to take on debt in the initial year of a college degree, but also more likely to take on higher levels of debt. In this sense, many students are choosing lower return degrees because their parents are footing the bill.

Thus, making college free would not only fail to solve the problem; it would also exacerbate it. Removing the cost will drive a wedge between the costs and benefits of pursuing education in different fields.

If we want to have a revival within the liberal arts, universities need to be transparent and upfront with students about their earnings and career prospects under different degree paths. For example, the relative dominance of the social sciences is consistent with the surge in demand and returns in the labor market for data science skills. But even traditional liberal arts students, such as English or classics majors, often acquire skills that complement those of hardcore data scientists. For example, a joint study by the American Enterprise Institute and Burning Glass Technologies detailed recommendations for helping liberal arts majors to better integrate into the labor market and pursue meaningful careers.

The Trump administration has championed greater transparency in higher education. For example, building on the March 21 Executive Order on improving free inquiry, transparency, and accountability at colleges and universities, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has redesigned the College Scorecard, adding critical information about median earnings and student loan debt for each institution. This information empowers families to make informed decisions about educational attainment — a critical ingredient for any marketplace to function properly.

Christos A. Makridis, Ph.D., serves as a research assistant professor at Arizona State University, a digital fellow at the MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy, a non-resident fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Cyber Security Initiative, a non-resident fellow at the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion and a senior adviser to Gallup.

Tags Betsy DeVos Burning Glass Technologies Census Bureau Education free college Higher education in the United States Liberal arts education

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