- Liberal arts colleges tend to have higher returns than most other types of institutions, though graduates don't see their investment pay off immediately, according to a new report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce (Georgetown CEW).
- A decade after enrolling, students at liberal arts colleges see a median return on investment of $62,000, which is roughly 40% lower than that of all institutions. But at the 40-year mark, they have a median return on investment of $918,000, compared to the $723,000 median for all schools.
- The findings come as more Americans question the value of higher education and some liberal arts colleges struggle with enrollment declines.
Liberal arts colleges offer the third-highest long-term returns of all 14 institution types outlined by the Carnegie Classification system. Only doctoral universities with the two highest research activity levels ranked higher, the report found.
"As with many four-year institutions, financial returns from liberal arts colleges start low, but enrolling at one of these colleges is a good investment in the long term," Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown CEW, said in a statement.
That's not true for all liberal arts colleges. Some have long-term returns of less than $550,000, well under the median, the report points out.
And institutions with similar student demographics can yield vastly different returns. Oberlin College, where nearly 9% of students are Pell Grant recipients, has a 40-year return on investment of $763,000. Meanwhile, Washington and Lee University, which has about the same share of Pell students, delivers a return of $1.58 million, the report found.
Colleges with higher shares of students majoring in STEM disciplines also tend to have higher returns. "[T]he old rules still apply," Martin Van Der Werf, co-author of the report and associate director of editorial and postsecondary policy at Georgetown CEW, said in a statement. "Where students go to school, and what they major in, matters more than just about anything else."
A growing number of students are opting for majors with a clear link to the job market — such as business and computer science — as polling shows Americans increasingly doubt the value of higher education.
About half of U.S. adults said they view a college education as "very important" according to a Gallup survey earlier this year, down from 70% of respondents who said the same in 2013. And a separate recent Gallup survey found that just a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) believe postsecondary education is affordable to anyone who needs it.
Amid this shift in public sentiment, some liberal arts colleges have been struggling to fill their seats, forcing several to close. Higher ed experts attribute the enrollment declines to a drop-off in the number of high school graduates and a strong economy pulling students directly into the workforce.
In response to these challenges, some liberal arts colleges are forming partnerships with companies or nontraditional education providers to teach their students in-demand job skills. Dominican University of California, for example, is partnering with the Make School, a coding academy, to offer computer science curriculum. Several community colleges are working with Amazon Web Services to incorporate courses and credentials in cloud computing.
Others are doubling down on the liberal arts. Massachusetts' Hampshire College, which appeared on the brink of closure last year, has rolled out a new curriculum in which students will focus on addressing modern-day issues, such as climate change and social inequity.