THE BLOG

Is It Worth It?

05/22/2013 04:34 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2013
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This is commencement season at colleges and universities across the nation. Graduating students, their families, and their teachers swell with pride as each diploma is awarded. As president of St. John's College, I greet all the graduating students, one by one, with a diploma and a hearty handshake, wishing them the best of luck as they begin the next stages of their lives. They leave us, deeply accomplished in the liberal arts, to begin a lifetime of professional and personal exploration. Yet I know that in these uncertain economic times some of the graduates and their families are wondering: Was it worth it?

What is the meaning of this question? For many it means, Will the investment of time and money in liberal learning be repaid by a high-paying and satisfying job that will lead to a successful career? As my fellow presidents of liberal arts colleges will tell you, there is a great deal of research indicating that liberal arts students fare extremely well in the workplace. For example, a recent report by the American Association of Colleges and Universities shows that employers are more interested in critical thinking and problem-solving than any particular undergraduate major, and in fundamental skills such as ethical judgment, continued learning, and evidence-based reasoning.

My fellow presidents and I will also reassure you that the financial investment continues to be both sound and reasonable. The vast majority of liberal arts institutions have increased their commitment to financial aid, as they have increased their commitment to affordability. At St. John's, for instance, we have increased our financial aid by millions of dollars to ensure that students who will thrive here can attend. And we have always followed a policy of trying to provide enough financial assistance to every student in order to bring tuition costs within reach -- a policy shared by many similar liberal arts institutions. (For an explanation of how this works, see this article from The Atlantic.) So long as loans are undertaken carefully and strategically, the investment in a liberal education is still much more likely than not to repay itself on purely economic grounds.

But we college presidents are often outdone by our students in speaking persuasively about the value of their education. This year's senior class, for example, invited alumnus James Schamus, CEO of Focus Features and professor of professional practice at Columbia University's School of the Arts, to be their commencement speaker. Fully aware that Prof. Schamus is an outspoken champion of liberal education, they chose him because his work as an academic and as a film executive "seemed to be a paradigm for the kind of balance between an inner and outer life that we hope to achieve in the coming years." His speech certainly fulfilled their expectations, implying not only that the balance between inner and outer life is important, but that the proper equilibrium can only be attained by giving more weight to the inner than to the outer.

The reason for this is that the inner life provides the shaping forces that guide us through the choices we make in the outer life. Imagination, judgment, discrimination, flexibility, propensity for learning and relearning, and intrepidity in the face of change -- these inner traits are all exercised by rigorous application to the liberal arts. And it is these inner traits that prepare our students for the wide range of careers and further studies that they actually end up pursuing. Even while they are still students, they pursue diverse interests in many different fields. Through the Hodson Trust internship program our students can receive internships in all sorts of disciplines. This summer we have students who will be working at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the Institute for Behavioral Genetics, the University of Chicago Institute for Mind & Biology, the U.S. Naval Observatory, the Washington Performing Arts Society, the US-ASEAN Business Council, and the U.S. Congress. And after they graduate, they are prepared to go on in the various STEM fields, in medicine, law, journalism, education, the arts, and business and finance. And our new graduates can rely on the assistance of an active network of alumni mentors who have already balanced their inner lives with their outward success.

So do our students think that their liberal education proves valuable in regard to their careers and finances in later life? A purely economic indicator seems to show that their answer to that question is Yes -- St. John's College has a 0 percent default rate on student loans.

But if the inner life directs the choices of the outer life, then certainly a purely economic indicator is not the best. One new graduate, Grace Tyson of Pensacola, Florida, thinks that the true value of her liberal arts education lies in the passions she has developed during her four years at St. John's. In an address to the The Caritas Society of St. John's College (a volunteer organization that provides grants to help students meet their college expenses), Ms. Tyson said,

"I can do anything. St. John's has given me the tools: the ability to listen, think, speak, write, and ultimately, act. I need only decide where to direct my passion, and the world is mine, thanks to the incredible education I have had the blessing to receive here [at St. John's]."

Like so many of her fellow graduates, Ms. Tyson considered several careers -- medicine and law among them -- and is prepared for any of them. But she chose to work for Teach For America, which seeks out new graduates with strong leadership skills and academic preparation to tackle the difficult project of teaching in some of America's most underprivileged school systems. After a three-week boot camp this summer, she will be placed in the school with the greatest need. She discovered this calling through her own experience in her small, discussion-based classes, through conversations with faculty and friends, and through an internship she held at a local elementary school. Not yet 25, she has already discovered the inner wellspring -- and now she can tap it for a lifetime.

As I said, our students often express the value of their liberal education better than we professionals. In her speech, Ms. Tyson provided her own answer to the question of whether liberal education is worth it:

"I have been ignited with a love of the educational process, a process which, I believe, begins and ends with passion. The fire St. John's has kindled in my soul has informed the path I will take after St. John's… Before I came to the college, I read enthusiastically, yet timidly. Now I read with fiercely inquisitive bravery. I have learned that great questions lead to ever more questions, not necessarily answers, and I have learned that the greatness of the human spirit shows itself in just this realization."

Is it worth it? On the level of career and finances, a liberal education continues to hold its own. But even if it did not, it would still remain worth it for the fire that it ignites in the soul, which lights the paths to be followed along the journey through life.

Christopher Nelson is president of St. John's College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John's College, with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe, is the third oldest in the nation. It is known for its distinctive curriculum in which students read and discuss great works of western civilization, including our nation's founding documents. www.stjohnscollege.edu