Assessing the Value of Liberal Arts

Competency-based education is an innovative way to measure the value of a liberal arts degree.

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Despite continued evidence that going to college pays off for graduates in terms of higher wages over the long term, rising tuition costsstudent-debt levels, and media reports focusing on recent graduates inability to find jobs mean that the value of higher education is repeatedly questioned and that there is a growing concern regarding the assessment of student learning and college performance. A recent Northeastern University study found that only 38 percent of employers rated the U.S. higher education system as excellent or good at preparing students for the workforce, compared with 62 percent who rated it fair or poor. Another study found that a majority of employers agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major,” a result that would seem to favor liberal arts graduates.

Even with liberal arts schools seeking to provide a comprehensive education, a similar question of value has surrounded the liberal arts as a number of studies have shown that recent graduates from these schools struggle in the job market. For example, a study in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Current Issues found that the unemployment rate for graduates with liberal arts degrees was relatively high compared with other fields, and 52 percent were underemployed in jobs that did not require a college degree. The scrutiny of unemployment rates is compounded by concerns over rising tuition costs, leaving liberal arts colleges with the task of proving their value, even though studies also show that liberal arts degrees pay off over time and that the skills provided by liberal arts programs are highly desired in the workforce. Providing students and graduates with competency-based evaluations based on marketable skills could help clarify their job-readiness to employers and reduce both their unemployment and underemployment rates.

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