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The Economic Benefits and Costs of a Liberal Arts Education

Submitted by Jerome Kohl on September 6, 2019 - 9:50am

Last spring, out of curiosity, I searched the LinkedIn career website for people who included a degree in political science from the University of Washington on their profiles. It was really fun to explore what many graduates of the department are doing and how they got there.

This search also got me thinking about the popular view that a liberal arts education may make for better citizens but is not a good career path. The profiles I viewed suggested that many of our graduates are doing very well professionally. And it turns out that recent research comparing college graduates in their mid-30s finds “inadequate evidence to conclude that the earnings impact of receiving a liberal arts education differs significantly from alternative types of higher education.”

A college education clearly matters. Studies indicate a 65–75% earnings premium compared to a high school diploma. Studies also find modest differences in earnings between liberal arts majors and students pursuing more specific training (such as engineering). But these earnings differences don’t account for career preferences. For example, if social scientists are more likely to work for (lower paying) non-profit organizations or in the public sector, then we might not want to conclude that this is solely because they lack higher paying job opportunities. Moreover, other research indicates that this earnings gap disappears by age 40.

What students learn appears to matter more than the degrees on their transcripts.  Nearly half of all college graduates end up working in areas outside of their majors.  This sort of mobility rewards social science skills such as abstract problem solving, critical thinking, and effective communication. I have personally heard this from alumni and employers.

As a department, we can always do better at leveraging our limited resources to improve student engagement and learning. We can also better accommodate the concerns and needs of an increasingly diverse student body, and aid students’ transitions to the workplace (through intensive research opportunities, internships, and networking). But there appears to be little reason to question the value of a social science education.

                                                                                                —John Wilkerson

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