Aerial photo showing the Warch Center and the quad on the Lawrence University campus.
Lawrence University

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Liberal arts college students, take heart. That education you are pursuing will not only provide you with critical thinking skills and a rich array of experiences to prepare you for an engaged life, it also preps you for economic success in today’s rapidly changing job market.

That message comes through loud and clear in a newly released report by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that debunks the notion that students are better served pursuing pre-professional programs that are hailed as being more market-ready.

At Lawrence University, the liberal arts education is paired tightly with newly enhanced career counseling, a focus on entrepreneurship and a desire to stay connected with students long after they’ve graduated. It’s a formula that provides the best of both worlds — a broad, deeply diverse and enriching educational experience and an infrastructure designed to prepare students for the workforce through career advising, internships, fellowships and other opportunities administered via the Center for Career, Life and Community Engagement (CLCE).

Anne Jones, the interim director of the CLCE who has overseen the recent implementation of enhanced career advisory tools, said preparation for a rapidly changing job market is a key part of the liberal arts education at Lawrence.

“It’s limiting to be trained during college for a specific role because of how quickly the environment and the industries are changing,” she said. “So, we try to teach students to learn to learn, so that they are better able to react as the jobs change.”

The CLCE is in the process of rolling out the first phase of its new initiatives aimed at making sure no student falls through the cracks when it comes to honing career-building skills. Newly built “career communities” that bring together Lawrence students with related career interests will put resources, experts, contacts and opportunities at their fingertips. The new tools will be publicly rolled out when students return to campus for spring term.

Connect to Career Communities here

Information on Career, Life, and Community Engagement (CLCE) here

Mixing those enhanced career-building opportunities with the critical-thinking mantra of a liberal arts education is the Lawrence way. The Mellon Foundation report affirms the value of that investment of time, energy and money.

The Mellon report acknowledges that the choice of a career field will certainly affect a student’s long-term economic prospects — yes, engineers will make more than elementary school teachers — but it argues that that is the case no matter what type of institution you enroll in. And the idea that liberal arts colleges are not offering majors in many of the in-demand STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — is pure fallacy.

“Critics claim that a liberal arts education is worth less than the alternatives, and perhaps, not even worth the investment at all,” the report states. “They argue that increasing costs and low future earnings limit the value of a liberal arts education, especially compared to alternative options such as pre-professional programs that appear to be better rewarded in the current labor market.”

Not true, says the Mellon report.

“Existing evidence does not support these conclusions, when other student and institutional characteristics are controlled for,” the report continues.

The report was authored by Catharine B. Hill and Elizabeth Davidson Pisacreta, both economists with Ithaka S+R.

See full Mellon Foundation report here

They call the perception that liberal arts colleges are not graduating students in math and science a myth. While many liberal arts colleges, including Lawrence, do not offer an engineering degree, their offerings are robust in other STEM fields.

Lawrence, for example, has long had sought-after programs in biology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics and mathematics, to name a few.

And, the report says, it’s important to acknowledge that not every student wants to be an engineer or a scientist. The income gap has more to do with career choices than whether you pursue a liberal arts education.

But it’s still important, the Mellon report authors state, for liberal arts colleges to be in front of the argument that there isn’t an adequate payoff for the investment. Don’t hide from the naysayers. Instead, show prospective students and their families where the value is and what you’re doing to prepare students to be job market-ready when they graduate and for future career growth.

“It therefore behooves liberal arts defenders to recognize and validate these concerns and provide evidence of the pecuniary benefits to a liberal education so that students and families can take them into account in their decision-making,” the report states.

Head shot of Lawrence President Mark Burstein
Mark Burstein

Lawrence University President Mark Burstein, a history major while an undergraduate at Vassar College, said he can proudly raise his hand when it comes to seeing first-hand the value of a liberal arts education and its ability to prepare students for a wide range of opportunities.

“I took a circuitous path to a college presidency with positions at a Wall Street investment bank, an organizational development consulting firm, and New York City government, followed by leadership positions at Columbia and Princeton universities,” Burstein said. “This career would not have been possible without the skills I learned as a history major at a liberal arts college. There I learned how to present complex topics, lead in a diverse community, and critically analyze the central issues that face society.

“It is nice to see that Hill and Pisacreta’s research underlines what I have experienced, that a liberal arts degree prepares us for career success.”

The Mellon report acknowledges that it’s difficult to define a liberal arts education because factors and practices vary from institution to institution. But at its core it includes a broad array of experiences and opportunities, infused with subject matter across a wide swath of educational terrain, all with an emphasis on critical thinking. 

“A liberal education therefore may be characterized not only by what is taught, but how it is taught and the skills that it develops as a result,” the report states.

The liberal arts approach prepares a student for career mobility and nimbleness, the CLCE’s Jones said.

“Many of the roles that will be out there might not even exist today,” she said. “The liberal arts do a really good job of teaching people the intellectual strength to think and learn, which should prepare them well.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu