A Framework for Measuring Liberal Arts-Ness

Tuesday, September 29, 2020 - 11:35

Researchers find no relationship between attending a college with a robust liberal arts and sciences offering and students' midcareer earnings. 

In a new contribution to the long-running debate over the value of a liberal arts education, a new study provides a novel framework for measuring the degree to which various institutions offer a liberal arts and sciences education and finds no relationship between enrollment at an institution with strong liberal arts-style offerings and midcareer earnings. 

The authors of the study push for a broad definition of liberal arts and science education. They argue that previous research on the value of liberal arts education relied on using attendance at liberal arts colleges or enrollment in liberal arts and sciences majors as proxies for a liberal arts and sciences education.

“But a liberal arts and sciences education is more than a set of academic disciplines, and students receive it across diverse sectors of postsecondary education,” the authors contend in the study, which was conducted by Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit research organization, and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “As such, we contend that past studies fail to completely capture the experience of a liberal education and thus provide an incomplete picture of its value.”


The study comes in the context of persistent skepticism in some political and higher ed circles about the value of such an education, and conflicting messages about its economic return. Republican politicians in particular have periodically taken aim at state funding for programs in the arts and humanities and openly criticized the value and economic returns of traditional liberal arts majors ranging from French literature to philosophy to psychology.

Presidents of liberal arts colleges have increasingly found themselves on the defensive, as a result, and have become more vocal about justifying the expense and worth of a liberal arts education in economic terms. A recent study from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that graduates of liberal arts colleges have lower returns on their college investment than graduates of other colleges 10 years after enrollment but higher returns at the 40-year mark.

The Ithaka study notes, however, that the public criticism of liberal arts education often focuses on a narrow sphere of liberal arts colleges, missing a bigger picture and obscuring a broader base of public support for this style of education. The authors note, for example, that a liberal arts and sciences education “is now the most popular path for community college graduates, representing 55 percent of all associate degrees conferred.” They also note the prevalence of liberal arts-style honors programs at public universities.

"Modeled after private liberal arts colleges, public honors programming includes seminar-style classes, tailored faculty advising, residential living communities, and other co-curricular elements that enable learning inside and outside of the classroom," the study states. "State-funded institutions use these programs to attract high-ability students, promising them a liberal arts and sciences experience at lower costs than those of private colleges -- often through well-funded scholarships. Today, 81 percent of bachelor’s degree issuing public universities offer such programming. As funding cuts force schools to weigh the merits of each budget item, these more expensive honors programs are enthusiastically supported by state administrators, showing the public sector’s commitment to liberal education."

The Ithaka researchers say their study offers a "new and nuanced framework" to identify, describe and measure the core features of an undergraduate liberal arts and sciences educational experience at a broad spectrum of institutions, not just those classified as liberal arts institutions.

Using data from several national surveys and databases, the authors score 454 different four-year institutions on the degree to which they provided a liberal arts and sciences educational offering in the early 2000s, with a focus on three areas: pedagogy, curriculum and community. The framework and metrics the authors used, and the scores each of the individual institutions received, can be found here.

In making analyses, the researchers use a full sample of the 454 institutions as well as a restricted sample of 340 four-year institutions that are not classified as liberal arts institutions. Liberal arts colleges in general receive the highest scores according to the framework, and private universities on the whole receive higher scores than public ones.

The researchers found that a high score on what they call the Liberal Arts and Sciences Educational Offering (LASEO) framework is not associated with better or worse labor market outcomes for graduates on most of the outcomes they measured. After controlling for various student demographic characteristics, the authors found no significant relationship between an institution’s LASEO score and four primary labor market outcomes they examined, including midcareer earnings, the ratio of the net college price to earnings and loan repayment rates.

“As such, our findings suggest that the degree to which institutions do or do not offer their students a liberal arts and sciences educational experience is neither positively nor negatively associated with their students’ labor market outcomes, as measured in this study,” they write. “These findings do not support, and may even run counter, to the claim that a liberal arts and sciences education does not prepare students for the twenty-first-century job market or for economically-viable careers.”

They added, “Further countering that argument are the positive associations we observe on a secondary outcome and in our restricted sample. In both the full and restricted sample, we observe a positive relationship between an institution’s LASEO score and a secondary labor market outcome -- the likelihood that a student whose parents are at the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution moves to the top 40 percent of the income distribution by their early 30s. This suggests that liberal arts and sciences educational experiences may provide value-added for low-income students in particular. We also observe a positive association in the restricted sample of non-liberal arts institutions between an institution’s LASEO score and its graduation rate.”

Daniel Rossman, the lead author of the study, said there are many misconceptions about a liberal arts and sciences education.

“It’s not just the humanities -- it’s hard sciences, also it’s social sciences. Some equate it with just elite liberal arts colleges; we aim to show it’s way more than that and it can be offered at a lot of different types of institutions,” he said.

The Ithaka study does not include community colleges despite what the study describes as "the recent upswell in community college students graduating with degrees in the liberal arts and sciences." Rossman said the sector was not included in the study sample due to data limitations.

“Unfortunately, based on the available data, there were only 34 two-year institutions that met our threshold for having a significant amount of data to be included,” Rossman said. “We thought 34 was too small of a sample to conduct a rigorous analysis.”

Rossman suggested this could be one area for further research.

“I would love to see use of this by other people in the field to apply it in different contexts, to look at different types of data, different types of institutions and to continue to explore the value of a liberal arts and sciences education using this as a stepping-stone,” he said.

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