We have heard much recently from politicians, pundits and others about the purpose and value of higher education. From President Barack Obama on down, almost all of the commentary has focused on the economic imperative of higher education, lamenting how the United States is falling behind other countries and how we need to be able to compete economically with China. The downturn in the economy has increased this rhetoric, narrowing the conversation about, and the understanding of, the purpose of higher education. This rhetoric has grossly undervalued an education in the liberal arts, which include math and sciences as well as humanities. Viewing higher education only through an economic prism distorts its broader value and benefits both to the individual and society. Viewing the liberal arts as unresponsive to the economic prospects of individuals and to the health of our society is no less a distortion.
Certainly, higher education has an economic component. The data remain clear; those with college degrees earn more than those without a degree and are employed at much higher rates. This is true regardless of the undergraduate degree. But repeated surveys of CEOs have shown their preference for liberal arts graduates and the broad range of skills and attributes they bring to the workplace, particularly their adaptability and ability to learn. In addition, the growing emphasis on immediate employment as the single most important outcome is extremely shortsighted and looks more like training than education. It might prepare graduates for a first, entry-level job, but will it prepare them for a dynamic economy where adaptability, creative thinking, cogent and clear writing, effective speaking and teamwork are essential? These qualities are common to liberal arts graduates and crucial to a truly competitive workforce.