The Value of a Liberal Arts Degree: What’s the Return on Investment?

Mississippi’s state auditor recently released an eight-page report suggesting the state should invest more in college programs that could “improve the value they provide to both taxpayers and graduates.”

That means state appropriations should focus more on engineering and business programs, said Shad White, the comptroller, and less on liberal arts majors like anthropology, women’s studies and German language and literature.

Not only do these graduates learn less, Mr. White said, but they are also less likely to stay in Mississippi. More than 60 percent of anthropology graduates leave to find work, he said.

“If I was advising my kids, I would say first and foremost, you need to find a degree program that combines your passion with some kind of practical skill that the world really needs,” Mr. White said in an interview. (She has three young children, far from college age.)

For years, economists and more than a few concerned parents have debated whether a liberal arts degree is worth the price. The debate now appears to be over and the answer is “no”.

Not only do public officials like Mr. White question state support for the humanities, a growing number of universities, often aided by outside consultants, are now putting many beloved departments — art history, American studies — on the block. They say they face headwinds, including students flocking to majors more aligned with employment.

West Virginia University recently sent layoff notices to 76 people, including 32 tenured faculty members, as part of its decision to cut 28 academic programs — many in fields such as languages, landscape architecture and the arts.

Several other public institutions have announced or proposed program cuts, mostly in the humanities, including the University of Alaska, Eastern Kentucky University, North Dakota State University, Iowa State University and the University of Kansas. according in The Hechinger Report, an educational magazine.

Miami University, a public institution in Oxford, Ohio, with 20,000 students, is reevaluating 18 undergraduate majors, each with fewer than 35 students enrolled, including French and German, American studies, art history, classics and religion .

These departments are dwarfed by computer science, which has an enrollment of 600 students. finances, with 1,400; marketing, with 1,200; and nursing, with almost 700.

For the humanities faculty, “it’s an existential crisis,” Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix, a professor at the University of Miami, said in an interview. “There’s so much pressure on return on investment.”

He said he hopes the subject, if not the majors, could be salvaged, perhaps by creating more interdisciplinary programs such as cybersecurity and philosophy.

The change has been happening for decades. In 1970, education and combinations of social science and history degrees were the most popular majors, according to federal statistics.

Today, the most popular degree is business, at 19% of all degrees, while social sciences lag far behind with just 8% of degrees.

Many courses on the endangered list are also incompatible with an expanding conservative political agenda. And many public universities are loathe to seek further control of their already stagnant state subsidies.

At the University of Miami, degrees include critical race and ethnic studies, social justice studies, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

Mr. White, the Republican state comptroller, said his first question was whether state curriculum spending matched the needs of the economy. But he said he also wanted to know, “Are we paying or using taxpayer money to fund programs that teach the professor’s ideology and not just a skill set of how to approach problems in the world?”

Liberal arts professors are scrambling to defend themselves, using arguments tailored to a rapidly changing economy — while also appealing to a more nuanced vision of life’s possibilities.

In a recent YouTube videos — with the blunt title “Is a Humanities Degree Worth It?” — Jeffrey Cohen, the dean of humanities at Arizona State University, champions his field as a path not just to a job, but to a lifetime of career reinvention.

“Our students live in a time where the career they’ve trained for is not likely to be the career they’re going to be in 10 years down the line,” says Mr. Cohen. Studying the humanities, he argues, will teach them how to be nimble.

In a recent discussion in New York City sponsored by the Plow, a Christian-oriented quarterly magazine, Roosevelt Montás, a senior lecturer in American Studies and English at Columbia University, suggested that universities should push back against a strictly careerist view of education .

“It’s not true that all students want from a college is a job,” he said. They crave an education that “transforms them, an education that addresses the whole self, not just a bank account.”

But this argument seems to falter almost everywhere.

Harvard, which has an endowment of more than $50 billion, formed a strategic planning commission to examine humanities education. One idea, a university spokesman said, would be to unify three language majors into one super major: languages, literatures and cultures.’

There are also collateral damages. In early October, Gettysburg College closed The Gettysburg Review. In its heyday, the magazine, founded in 1988, published writers such as EL Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates and Rita Dove. More recently, it prides itself on publishing emerging writers.

The magazine’s editors, Lauren Hohle and Mark Drew, were caught off guard when their college professor told them they were being fired.

“He said we’re not serving the core mission of the college,” Mr. Drew recalled. “I wanted to say, ‘What’s the core mission?’ I thought this was a liberal arts institution. But I was trying not to be stingy.”

To Mr. Drew, The Review, with about 1,100 paying subscribers, was a symbol to the outside world of the college’s commitment to the humanities. But for the university’s president, Robert Iuliano, the overhaul was a money pit that could have boosted the college’s reputation among letters, but at a cost to the student body.

The magazine earned about $30,000 to $40,000 a year in subscription revenue, “and the operating costs are about five times that,” he said.

“We think really hard about what it means to prepare students for today’s world,” she said, “because you know, it’s changing so rapidly.” That means, he added, offering courses that could be paired with “hands-on experiential opportunities.”

Mr. White, the comptroller of Mississippi, specialized in political science and economics at the University of Mississippi before becoming a Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Harvard Law School — a fine example, perhaps, of the value of the liberal arts.

But if he could do it over again, he might switch majors, he said, because “political science majors don’t have a high salary.” Working on a campaign or in government can be more valuable experience than a degree, he said.

Mr White said he would personally like to play acoustic guitar for a living. But he doubted his chances of success given the small number of jobs available.

Then he seemed to reconsider, admitting: “If you look at the data, big music does really well for whatever reason. They go to work in schools, they go to work at the university or they work in churches.”

So on reflection, he softened his message. “What I would say to students is, don’t write off all the liberal arts,” he said. “Don’t write off all fine art.”

Robert Gebeloff contributed to the research.

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