Point Study It
by Len Penzo
Counterpoint Study It All
by Lindsay Nieman
There is more than a grain of truth in the old joke that goes something like this:
The engineering graduate asks, “How will it work?”
The physics grad wants to know, “Why does it work?”
And the liberal arts graduate asks, “Do you want fries with that?”
A recent study by Bloomberg Businessweek evaluated over 500 American universities and colleges. Here are the top institutions of higher learning identified by Bloomberg that were found to provide the best net annualized returns on investment:
1. Georgia Institute of Technology
2. University of Virginia
3. Brigham Young University
4. Colorado School of Mines
5. College of William and Mary
6. University of California - Berkeley
7. University of California - Los Angeles
8. University of Michigan
9. Virginia Polytechnic Institute
10. University of Florida
11. University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
12. California Polytechnic State University - San Luis Obispo
13. Texas A&M
14. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
15. California Institute of Technology
Now take a look at those top 15 schools. What do you see that stands out?
Of course, the first thing I assume most of you will notice is that the University of Michigan made the list at number eight, although that’s not what I was looking for. You are the big winner, though, if you noticed that there is exactly one lonely liberal arts college on the list: William and Mary. On the other hand, the vast majority focus more on professional or technical education, and six institutes of technology on the list (in bold) specialize in engineering, science and/or technology degrees, including my alma mater, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
The reason for this is simple. Fewer people get technical degrees, which keeps demand for engineers and scientists high, which in turn keeps their salaries high in relation to most other professions. Yes, you can still make a lot of money with a liberal arts degree, but it's a lot tougher because the competition is so much more intense.
Obviously, the trick for you folks in college who are not interested in pursuing a technical degree—or becoming a lawyer or doctor—is to make sure you don't get caught spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a diploma that ends up being a complete waste of your hard-earned money.
How do you go about doing that, you ask?
Well, if your college degree of choice requires you to take any of the following real life courses that your very own U-M offers, you may want to think about finding yourself a new major. Stat.
1. Dinosaurs and Other Failures
2. Sex and the City: Urban Geographies and Sexual Locations
3. History of Witchcraft
4. Behavior of Wolves and Dogs
5. Why Grandpa Went to War
6. Disney’s Lands: Consuming Wonders of the World
7. Frauds and Fantastic Claims in Archaeology
8. Virtuality and Digital Identity
9. Indigenous Women’s Art Practice in Cross-Cultural Contact
10. Much Depends on Dinner
Now take another look at the classes above. What common characteristic do you see that stands out? True, none of them require any serious math skills. But, more importantly, although each would presumably count for credit towards a liberal arts degree, all of these ridiculous courses contribute very little to making you more competitive in the marketplace.
Think about it. Are there really employers out there looking for graduates who can identify the main ingredient in a frittata and show why the pyramids of Giza were not built with the help of aliens from Zeta Riticuli? Or knows the locations of the red light districts in America's biggest cities? Of course. But there aren’t many.
There simply are not a lot of hiring managers pounding on their desks and demanding their highly paid headhunters find them a liberal arts graduate that knows—I mean really, really knows—why Grandpa went to war. However, you can bet your bottom dollar that they are absolutely begging for people who have taken numerous courses in mathematics, engineering, chemistry and/or physics, even in the terrible economy we currently find ourselves in. These skills are always in demand, and for good reason: science and engineering grads drive innovation, constantly looking for new ways to change the world and improve our lives. Investing in a technical or vocational education won’t just earn you a fat paycheck—it will also make you a productive, contributing member of society.
With that in mind, before you commit to spending tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for a liberal arts degree, you might want to reconsider your options—especially if you plan on getting a reasonably quick and decent return on your college investment worthy of an Ivy League portfolio.
That is, unless you don’t mind getting a job after you graduate asking customers if they want to super-size their mega-value meal deal.
The purpose of higher education is to prepare students for the jobs and careers that follow. We go to a good college in order to launch our future livelihood. That's how it works. Or, at least, that's what our parents told us. This is why in TV commercial after commercial, job training institutions like Phoenix and Everest urge us to trade our couches and remotes for textbooks and shiny new degrees. And not just any degree, but a degree that directly translates into a new career with a stable income: medical assisting, accounting, or business administration. Vocational and for-profit college programs guarantee job-ready students by supplying them skills and training for their specific fields. And that is what a liberal arts education does, too—just in a less linear, less myopic fashion.
A liberal arts education is, after all, about the education; the general intellectual development of its students. Liberal arts schools prepare their students for careers without narrowing their academic—or even professional—possibilities. The University of Michigan does not provide job training; rather, it aims to produce well-rounded graduates, students who succeed in their chosen fields and in the world at large. Such universities boast full-bodied curriculums—Astronomy and English, Music and Geometry, Linguistics and History—and expect that their students take advantage of such an academic culture.
Take the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts: LSA’s purpose is to foster limber minds and flexible intellects through general course requirements that students must meet, regardless of their individual concentrations. To receive a Bachelor of Arts or Science, students complete writing courses, fulfill quantitative reasoning requirements, and earn credits outside of their majors.
Initially, this can be a tough concept to grasp for those of us with the means and motivation to take on a liberal arts education. As naïve yet know-it-all freshmen at orientation, confidently building a first semester of classes per our lofty career and academic goals, some of us balked at the idea of foreign language and social science requirements. With only four or five years to tackle concentration programs, we weren't sure we could allow for electives and non-major courses.
But these diversions often prove worthwhile, occasionally inspiring minors or even double majors, or at the very least generating and satisfying intellectual curiosities. Within the breadth and freedom of a liberal arts education, we can take a chance on unfamiliar subjects and pursue interests we never even knew we had. Even if our Anthropology, Photography, or Biology classes are left out when tabulating needed credits for a degree in Economics or Art History, the lessons we learned and the skills we acquired stay with us. Consequently, the University of Michigan cultivates Renaissance women and men who never stop being students, even after graduating. We continue to learn, to grow, and to ask questions. We are persistent in following our intellectual passions, wherever they might lead us, because that is what our education has encouraged and taught us to do.
But a liberal arts education does more than create surgeons with film blogs and graphic artists with Popular Science subscriptions—it builds an unshakeable foundation in critical thinking. Through exposure to multiple areas of study, we collect different means of analysis and patterns of logic. We gain the skills to translate our thoughts into organized, written language, and provide complex solutions to complex problems. We digest and consider different viewpoints while synthesizing our own, using professional opinions and personal experiences to develop our singular philosophies. These are the ways we learn to think: pragmatically, creatively, and most importantly, for ourselves.
This is possible because a liberal arts education is greater than the sum of its parts. It is not solely the dates we memorized, the equations we studied, or the facts we absorbed. The substance of our education is secondary to the skills we gained, those actual arts of liberal arts: the processes and methods of thinking and learning. Maybe a pre-med student will never strictly find a professional need for her academic minor in Russian Film, but such an unlikely background will likely provide the capacity for innovative avenues of analysis and problem solving.
And as for those self-assured freshmen making their four year plans—they can hardly be sure their initial majors will remain unchanged by their sophomore years, let alone predict the next fifteen years of their post-undergraduate lives. Even those with their futures carefully and confidently mapped are unable to fully guarantee the topography of what is ahead. At the University of Michigan, the range and variety of our educations means we prepare for every eventuality and every success.
While it may be true that a liberal arts education rarely provides a ready-made professional field with a degree, the product of this course of studies is far more beneficial. Instead, University of Michigan graduates have flexible academic experiences, educations and skill sets that can bend and stretch to accommodate any career or academic opportunities to which we aspire.
About the Issue
Point author: Len Penzo runs the irreverent, eponymous personal-finance blog, Len Penzo dot Com. The blog covers money with a strong emphasis on personal responsibility. It was honored by Kiplinger as a Best Money Blog in 2010.
Counterpoint author: Lindsay Nieman graduated from the University of Michigan in 2010 with a BA in English
Edited by: Lauren Opatowski & Leslie Horwitz
Cover by: Laura Gillmore