What is liberal education? Merriam-Webster defines it as an education “intended to bring about the improvement, discipline, or free development of the mind or spirit.” The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) says that a liberal education “provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world” and “helps students develop a sense of social responsibility.” The liberal arts comprise the skills, attitudes, and experiences that every citizen should master in order to be a contributing member of society, and can be traced back to ancient Greece. As Andrew Fleming West noted in his 1912 essay, the liberal arts were so central to the Greeks that they “came to consider acquaintance with the liberal arts as a general education, and the only general education.”
A 2012 Social Science Research Council study found that students with a liberal arts education were half as likely to be living with their parents after graduation and three times less likely to be unemployed after graduation, compared to their non-liberal arts peers. Further, a 2011 study found that students at liberal arts institutions were more likely to rate their college experience as “excellent,” felt better prepared for their first jobs, and were more likely to graduate in four years. And liberal arts students go on to pursue graduate degrees, too. A 2008 NSF report found that among the top 50 institutions whose undergraduates, by proportion, went on to earn a doctorate within nine years of their bachelor’s, 28 were baccalaureate institutions.
So what’s the problem?
According to 2013 CIRP data, the top reason students today decide to go to college is “to be able to get a better job,” while “to get training for a specific career” and “to be able to make more money” make strong showings at numbers 3 and 4, respectively. The bottom of the list is where you’ll find such antiquated ideas as becoming a more cultured person, gaining an appreciation of ideas, and preparing for graduate school. Granted, most freshmen, the population sampled in the survey, probably don’t tend to think about “becoming cultured” much in their daily lives, but it speaks to the larger conversation happening in households across the nation about why college matters.
Today’s students are stuck. Loan debt continues to rise and boomerang kids still have to move home after college, while the “happiness benchmark” for annual household income in the U.S. keeps going up, at $83,000 as of July 2014. 2013 census data put the median annual U.S. household income at $52,250, meaning that well over half of Americans can’t even imagine what life at the “happiness benchmark” feels like. This is the economic reality of today’s college students, so is it any wonder they are going to college with money on their minds?
Given these persistent realities, how do we build the benefits of a liberal education into the vocational curricula that students (and parents) demand? Liberal ideals and vocational aspirations need not be exclusive endeavors, and it’s our role to ensure they aren’t.