There are a lot of debates swirling about the value of higher education these days. If you’re looking for a stimulating discussion, you could do worse than wade into the ongoing national conversation over the current state and future direction of American higher education. Private or public? Four-year or two-year? In-class or online?
But if it’s a real debate you’re after, look no further than the roiling argument over the value of one particular kind of college or university education: the kind offered by Denison. The temperature of that debate was neatly summed up in the headline of an article that appeared last October on the website of the Public Broadcasting Corporation: “Is a Liberal Arts Degree Worth It?”
The arguments of those who answer that question with a resounding “no” can be reduced to two basic, and not entirely unrelated, positions:
a) a liberal arts degree is too expensive, and
b) a liberal arts degree won’t help you land a job.
Both arguments are compelling, especially when times are tough. With unemployment high and the future of the economy uncertain, students—and their parents—are more concerned than ever about the practical value of the degrees for which they are paying. And paying quite a bit: $50,000 a year at top-tier private institutions like Denison, for a sticker price that after four years amounts to “roughly the median price of a home in some metropolitan areas,” as the editors of U.S. News & World Report noted in 2010. This in an era when student indebtedness is also on the rise: $25,250 per head, on average, for the national class of 2010, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, with figures approaching $50,000 at a number of individual schools. (By comparison, Denison students’ average debt is about $16,000—and more than half of the college’s graduates leave without any debt at all.)
But for those on the “yes” side of the question, the purely financial, can-you-get-a-job arguments are the easiest to counter. Studies consistently show that those who earn a bachelor’s degree also earn significantly more income over the course of their careers than those who do not. People with liberal arts degrees pursue all manner of careers; the National Science Foundation’s data show that the nation’s top liberal arts colleges outperform even large research institutions in producing graduates who go on to earn doctorates in science and engineering, two areas that will be in particularly high demand in the years to come. And many liberal arts colleges, Denison included, have robust internship programs designed to boost students’ career potential by giving them real-world, resumé-building experience. In addition, Denison’s Career Exploration and Development Center recently launched an externship program that will allow students to shadow alumni on the job. And while student indebtedness is a serious problem, the actual debt any individual student accrues has a lot to do with where she goes to school. According to Nancy Hoover, director of financial aid, Denison’s lower debt burden—about $9,000 less than the national average—is due to the fact that about 95 percent of Denison students receive some sort of financial aid from the college, either merit or need-based, or both. Denison’s Admissions Office recently awarded members of the incoming class of 2016 annual scholarships in the $10,000 to $40,000 range. “You can go to a good liberal arts college and not come out overloaded with debt,” says Provost Bradley Bateman, himself an economist.
But what about the merits of a liberal arts education that cannot be entirely reduced to numbers and dollar signs? Proponents of the liberal arts contend that a liberal education confers long-term benefits both in the workplace and in the realms of good citizenship and self-fulfillment. Such arguments are neither as colorful nor as easily summarized as purely quantitative ones, but they get at the heart of what makes liberal education unique. They also hinge on a couple of niggling questions, like: What exactly is a liberal education? And how, exactly, does one measure its true value?
Although the terms are used interchangeably, liberal education and the liberal arts are not entirely synonymous. The latter refers to a clutch of subjects that evolved out of the medieval university curriculum, which comprised the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and the quadrivium (math, geometry, music, and astronomy). The trivium, in turn, dates back to classical antiquity, when it was considered essential study for any free citizen— “liberal” deriving from the Latin liber for “free.”
But as the Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger pointed out in the first century C.E., the point of a liberal education has never been just to master a particular subject, as useful as it might be, but rather to develop the capacity for wisdom and virtue. A present-day exponent might put it this way: while the arts and science majors that a college like Denison offers are of considerable value in and of themselves, they remain, in the grand scheme of liberal education, a means rather than an end.
But a means to what? You don’t often hear words like “wisdom” and “virtue” bandied about in contemporary debates over higher education. Instead, those who argue most passionately in favor of liberal education talk about “cognitive and personal capacities,” to use the phrase favored by Robert Connor, senior adviser to the Teagle Foundation, a private philanthropy that seeks to improve student learning and engagement. (The foundation has awarded funds to Denison to improve academic assessment and gauge student improvement in areas such as critical and creative thinking.)
Connor believes that relying solely on quantitative measures, such as the number and cost of college degrees, is a mistake. Better, he argues, to pay more attention to issues of quality: the ability of an educational institution to nurture critical thinking, effective communication, moral reasoning, and lifelong learning—all of which, he believes, lie “very, very close to the core of what liberal education provides for students.” As it happens, all of those skills are also extremely helpful in navigating a rapidly changing, deeply interconnected global environment in which individuals are required to make sense of vast amounts of information and to learn new skills more or less constantly.