Are liberal arts degrees as important as they used to be?

Bowie State University Commencement
Graduates of Bowie State University put messages on their mortarboard hats.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the latest of The Daily Circuit's month-long series of conversations about college in America, we focused on the proud American tradition of liberal arts education.

With a reported 8.5 percent of college graduates age 21-24 unemployed (16.8% if you include so-called "underemployment"), and the cost of college - particularly residential schools -- continuing to escalate, Kerri Miller asked her guests and the audience if a liberal arts education is still worth it. Here is some of that they said:

Len Schlesinger, professor at Harvard Business School and former president of Babson College.
On the problem at hand...
"As tuitions continue to escalate, as financial aid becomes increasingly constrained, the ability to connect higher education to employment over the short or the long run is increasingly a question that's being asked. ... It's very much the question on the minds of a whole generation of parents who are wondering about these investments, which is likely to be the second largest investment after a home."

On the need to effectively combine liberal arts with technical training...
"There's a critical role for liberal arts to play in providing the ability for young people to continue to evolve as professionals. But there's also a real need to be able to prepare people to DO something and hit the ground running, from a pure economic perspective, by the time they graduate."

Anthony Carnevale, Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
On the heart of the matter...
"The larger question is how we have it both ways? How do we integrate LA education into what has become an occupational/professional education system? More than 80% of the degrees we now give are in occupational areas."

Len Schlesinger
On what's at stake for the U.S. economy...
"If we are systematically to upskill the American workforce and link it up to investments in technology and business models that can afford higher wages, we're going to continue to move into a death spiral. These are pretty fundamental questions that are being framed as philosophical questions but have become quite practical."

Anthony Carnevale
On what changed...
"In the 1970s, 70% of Americans had a high school education or less. They were in the middle class. Now 65% of the population require some kind of post-secondary degree to have earnings above, say, $35,000 per year, which is a decent individual wage that can allow family formation with two earners.

"What happened was that technology change essentially automated anything that was repetitive at work. What was left over for people to do were the non-repetitive tasks, and that required more skill and we've been struggling ever since trying to build an education system (to do that). Because all we have for the purpose of upskilling the workforce is the education system. And we've been struggling ever since to figure out how to use it for that purpose but not destroy its larger purposes for developing the citizenry and allowing people to live fully in a democratic society."

Paul Timmins, director of career services at the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts.
On what recruiters are seeking...
"Employers will tell us they want teamwork skills. They want problem solving skills. They want people who can come in and be flexible, realizing that in this evolving economy, the tasks of five years from now can't be anticipated. We need to give (students) the foundational skills they can take with them so that they can hit the ground and be flexible in the workplace."

On the advice he gives...
"I tell our students 'your major might just be one word on your resume'...but we want our grads to leave here with a well-rounded suite of skills they can take out and use at their entry level careers....

"We're trying to get our students thinking about internships as early as possible so that they can look for ways of integrating what they're doing in the classroom with relevant meaningful experiences outside the classroom."

Anthony Carnevale
On the notion that all degrees offer equal value...
"In the BA world, the top earners are in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)...and architects. The lowest earners are people with psychology degrees and education degrees."

On the liberal arts degrees being "special" in their contribution to society...
"People who write novels have special skills and people who build bridges do as well. Both get people from one place to another...one in their head and one across a river. So the notion that only LA provides those skills is overstated in our culture."

DFL Congressman Rick Nolan represents Minnesota's 8th Congressional District.
On why he told his kids to get liberal arts educations...
"You've only got two ways to learn in life. One is personal experiences and the other is what you've been taught and read. And a good liberal arts education teaches you history and philosophy and humanities as well as math and the sciences. It prepares you better for leadership.... I've been greatly dismayed to see the dismantling of LA education not just in Minnesota but across the country in our college systems."

Anthony Carnevale
On paying for it...
"If the nation were to meet President Obama's goal, which is to make us #1 in the world for graduation rates in higher education...if we were to really fund his goal, we're short right now by $250 billion....
"There's an idealized vision of education which we can no longer afford. I think in the end it means that college education will get unbundled. It's already happening. The residential piece is expensive and has to go. It already has for many students. Students need to be able to buy (courses) in pieces.... These are the kinds of harsh realities that face higher ed. The government is pulling out, both federal and state. We've got to figure out how to educate a whole population."

Len Schlesinger
On the merits of the European model of training and education...
"If the European economies were doing a great job of being able to provide folks for the employment market, I'd be saying 'yeah, we should be taking a much more serious look at that.' But the European system has its own set of issues and problems associated with it and also is suffering from significant declines in public support."

On the rapid rise of technical and for-profit colleges...
"The evolution of higher ed was largely an outgrowth of the fact that the traditional state and liberal arts systems systematically ignored the needs of a broad array of adult and non-traditional learners....
"The rise of for-profit education completely was driven by the availability of government support and the explicit recognition that there were millions of people that were looking simply for a credential and a job and didn't want the overwhelming joy of the residential experience."

Anthony Carnevale
On the next generation of leaders...
"There has been a sea change that came with the change in the economy. The engineering and science majors really are the students with the degrees who have the most choices. We know when we track them over a career they change jobs very often. Their earnings go up very fast. In fact if they are native born Americans, they don't stay in STEM very long, they move into management. And we now know that in managerial roles, the people with technical degrees become the boss much faster than any other degree. Even faster than business where people basically get trained to be the boss."

Editor's note: A previous version of this program description cited a recession-era AP analysis of employment data for recent college graduates without listing the year of the data or the inclusion of "under-employment" in the data described. The 2011 analysis found that roughly half of graduates under age 24 were unemployed or underemployed. A comparable recent analysis is not available.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.