Liberal Arts Education Still Has Plenty To Offer Students

If you are an administrator at a liberal arts college, the news is mostly ominous and foreboding. Colleges that are highly dependent on tuition revenue and possess small endowments are reducing their faculty to cut costs, and in some cases even closing.

In the 1960s and 1970s, my parents had but a fraction of my current income and were able to put both my sister and me through Oberlin with no loans to repay after graduation. My parents were also the offspring of immigrants from Asia. I experienced the subtle pressure to seek out a “safe” career path guaranteed through higher education; in those days, this translated to doctor or lawyer.

Today, the emphasis is more on seeking schools that prioritize engineering and the sciences. As a volunteer for the Alumni Recruiting Network, I have represented Oberlin at college fairs and QuestBridge orientations and found this bias persists, particularly for first-generation college students. And where I experienced virtually no pressure in choosing a college, parents today exert greater influence on choice due to the burden of financing an education.

Few remember, but back in the 1950s, Oberlin was ranked as the number one liberal arts college in the country. It remained as high as fifth in 1985. These rankings were based on the quality of our students and the stellar nature of the education provided. We once produced more students who go on to receive doctorate degrees than any other liberal arts college.

Over time, Oberlin witnessed what has seemed like an inexorable slide down the rankings. This largely stemmed from new metrics, many of which are weighted toward the institution’s financial standing, such as “faculty resources” (faculty salaries and benefits like sabbatical time), “student-faculty ratio” (benefiting schools that can admit fewer students while maintaining the same size faculty), and “admissions selectivity” (again benefiting smaller schools not requiring as much income from tuition-paying students).

Nevertheless, as a close observer — my son is a recent graduate — I am convinced there has been no change in the quality of an Oberlin education. While we have fallen in the official rankings, this is because rankings these days simply look at the wrong factors. Thus, it comes as particularly welcome news that Inside Higher Education recently ran an article reporting on a study by two economists that refutes the popular assumption that attending a liberal arts college diminishes your chance of reaching a comfortable economic station in life (“The Economic Gains (Yes, Gains) of a Liberal Arts Education,” Feb. 15, 2019). Students attending elite liberal arts institutions are only 2 to 4 percent less likely than students at elite non-liberal arts colleges to enter the top 40 percent of earned income.

Though STEM-trained college graduates had higher rates of achieving this financial status, liberal arts colleges award larger shares of STEM degrees in non-engineering fields than do comparable non-liberal arts colleges. The study noted that the comparatively lower incomes of liberal arts graduates are attributable not to the type of college attended but the compensation awarded by the labor market. This should reassure graduating high school students that choosing the courses and teachers that most inspire them is perfectly reasonable, rather than prioritizing the monetary compensation associated with a particular course of study.

What the Inside Higher Education article does not note is a point emphasized by many in the Oberlin community — including the Alumni Leadership Council’s former president (and Obie parent), Lorri Olan. In her speech to a recent graduating class, she noted that one of the unique benefits of an Oberlin education comes from the particular values that are absorbed during transformative years on campus.

The humanities in particular — including literature, history, philosophy, religion, and the arts — inculcate the enduring values of human civilization: conviction and courage, intuition and insight, compassion and diversity of expression, moral responsibility, the nuanced and the sublime, among others. Such values, and the type of inquiry and exchange that permeates the institution as a result, are critical for preparing future generations to assume leadership and stewardship of the world.

My faith in these values and the quality of the Oberlin experience gives me the confidence to believe Oberlin will continue to compete for the best and brightest students. Admittedly, the challenges and headwinds are real. But I envision success, especially if Obies reflect on the benefits of their experience, as Ms. Olan encourages, and remain willing to build a community that stands behind our noble traditions