Measuring a Liberal Education and its Relationship with Labor Market Outcomes: An Exploratory Analysis

Executive Summary

The liberal arts and sciences has been a prominent feature of the United States higher education system for centuries, yet it has faced waves of public skepticism since the 1930s. Today, the value of a liberal education is constantly disputed, and colleges and universities face increasing pressure to justify their use of its practices on their campuses. To better understand the value and benefits of the liberal arts and sciences, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has funded a series of studies investigating the long-term effects of a liberal education on various outcomes such as health, civic engagement, and cognitive development. The present paper adds to this series by studying the economic value of a liberal education, as this particular focus is most commonly used to argue for and against its relevance and utility.

Previous research examining the value and limitations of a liberal education cite mixed results, relying on liberal arts colleges and liberal arts and sciences majors (or fields of studies) as proxies for a liberal 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. 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. In response, we present a new and nuanced framework, the Liberal Arts and Sciences Educational Offering (LASEO) Framework, to identify and describe the core features of an undergraduate liberal arts and sciences educational experience and subsequently measure them. Broadly speaking, our framework describes a liberal arts and sciences education as a tradition of learning that exposes learners to academic curricula across the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences. It employs engaging teaching practices within intimate settings that foster community and expose students to diverse perspectives, with the goal of developing a foundation for self-directed lifelong learning.

Using this framework, we produce a set of LASEO Index Scores capturing the degree to which a subset of 454 four-year institutions in the United States offered their students a liberal arts and sciences educational experience in the early 2000s. We then examine whether differences in LASEO scores are associated with one short-term academic and four long-term labor market outcomes for their students, at the institutional level. We also conduct the same set of analyses on a restricted subsample of 340 institutions in our dataset that are not classified as liberal arts institutions.

We do not find any associations between those offerings, as captured by our LASEO scores, and the four primary labor market outcomes of interest. 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. 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.

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.

In light of these findings, we believe there is much value in continuing to pursue research and practice that furthers our knowledge in this area, and support such educational offerings in the meantime. Follow-up research would benefit from additional and expanded applications of our framework and approach, including studying other types of institutions and conducting similar analyses using student-level data. It would also benefit from qualitative research that examines the potential mechanisms by which liberal arts and sciences educational experiences may provide low-income students with beneficial knowledge or skills. Researchers should also explore and analyze the institutional conditions and practices that influence those educational offerings and their take-up by students, how they can be made more widely available to students who may stand to benefit the most, and how they can be translated to virtual contexts.

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A Mellon Research Forum report published by Ithaka S+R. Authors: Daniel Rossman, Meagan Wilson, Rayane Alamuddin, Julia Karon, Jenna Joo, and Catharine Bond Hill.

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