The payoff on a liberal arts education is once again under the spotlight with a recent WSJ article that states students who choose elite liberal arts colleges don’t earn as much money early in their careers as those who attend highly selective research universities.
The Journal analyzed salary figures for the top 50 liberal arts colleges and research universities, based on data released by the Education Department that for the first time computed median earnings figures for each school. They concluded that top research universities were winning the salary war hands down, at least in the first ten years after graduation.
Perhaps no surprise that investment bankers, software developers and engineers are pulling in the best salaries after college. But does the data, which is limited to students who received federal loans or grants, and removes those enrolled in graduate school at the time of the study, tell the full story? After all, beyond arguments about the intangible benefits of education, the high proportion of liberal arts students who go on to attend graduate school can expect a mid-career earnings boost, particularly if they started their career in the public service sector.
“Alumni of liberal arts colleges number disproportionately high among the nation’s and the world’s leaders,” reminds John I. Williams, Jr, newly elected President of Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. “The world has never needed graduates of liberal arts colleges more than now. We’re preparing students for a less certain future than ever before, and they’ll need to come up with ways to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances.”
For Williams, the quality of mind nurtured at Muhlenberg and other fine, liberal arts colleges — promoting close collaboration between students and faculty in a residential setting — is more likely to confront future challenges in a nuanced and conceptually-integrated manner that will lead to wiser decisions.
“Everyone is talking about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and whether a liberal arts education is still relevant in this technological age. So many people think STEM is the best way to a career, but nothing could be farther from the truth.” He points out that the natural sciences and math — the alpha and omega of STEM — are core elements of a liberal arts education. “Our programs in biology, biochemistry, neuroscience, math and computer science provide excellent preparation for students interested in careers in biotechnology and other high-tech fields.“
Are the liberal arts relevant for the careers of the future? “You bet!” says Williams, who left a successful career in business and strategy consulting in Boston to come to Muhlenberg. ”More importantly, our students are preparing for leadership roles within the new, Creative Economy, where ideas are the coin of the realm. Technology is constantly evolving, and the students coming to our school today are going to be preparing for careers that don’t even exist yet.” Williams argues that for value-creation, the most important skills are integrative and creative thinking spanning multiple domains of knowledge, coupled with the ability to formulate cogent arguments and communicate clearly and compellingly.
“Don’t look now, but these are the skills our students are learning today. In fact, by blending art and science, today’s Muhlenberg students are forging new alloys that will shape and form the future. The large majority of our students double major, and in new and innovative combinations; say, in theatre and neuroscience, or dance and biochemistry. In fact, one of our professors recently remarked, “Some of our best pre-med students are dance majors!”
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Muhlenberg College President, John I. Williams, gives his top 5 reasons why the liberal arts is key preparation for future leaders.
1. The U.S. and the global economy places a premium on adaptability and mobility, key skills obtained from a broad education in the liberal arts, including the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. The future will value those who can bring new and innovative ideas — including disruptive new business models — to the table most effectively, and see them through to effective implementation;
2. The liberal arts reflect the broad, accumulated knowledge of not only Western civilization, but increasingly all the civilizations of the world. As the world becomes an increasingly interconnected place, increased understanding is essential;
3. The liberal arts include the arts, which impart an aesthetic sensibility that is critical to design and humanistic approaches to leadership; if Steve Jobs had not taken a course in calligraphy and, thereby, developed a deep aesthetic sensibility, the world might be a very different place today, filled with far fewer beautifully-designed products, and we might still be listening to vinyl record albums purchased in retail stores and played on turntables.
4. Liberal arts graduates are better able to think critically and express their views cogently and convincingly.
5. Liberal arts graduates have been trained to be curious about the world, about other cultures and other traditions; essential traits for leadership in our future. This is because they have the opportunity to study in many different areas.
Williams is not your typical college president. Born to a German-American mother and African-American father, he was raised in suburban Westbury, NY by African-American parents who adopted him at the age of one month. He attended Kent School, Amherst College and obtained JD and MBA in Harvard’s joint degree program.
In 1978, he was recruited by Mitt Romney to join Bain and Co. as a strategy consultant (becoming Bain’s first employee of color). While at Bain, he designed retail strategy for Firestone that is still in use today. He left to co-launch Softbridge Microsystems, before joining American Express as VP of strategic planning, then head of the Platinum card business, and finally head of the Consumer Travel Network.
In 1996, Williams became CEO of Biztravel.com, and four years later was a partner in higher education practice of the Bridgespan Group, a strategy consulting firm that assists non-profits. In 2010 he became Expert-in-Residence at Harvard’s Innovation Lab, and earlier this year was named Muhlenberg’s 12th president.
“Together, our community is committed to an ethos of reaching higher; guiding and driving students of extraordinary promise to reach above and beyond their given talents, skills, and objectives to achieve prominence and effect change in whatever professions, interests, and causes they choose to pursue.”
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This article was written by Matt Symonds from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.