The Return on Investment That Comes From a Liberal Arts Education

04/19/2013 01:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2013

All across America, educators, students, parents, executives, business people and commentators are debating the value of a liberal arts education. The most commonly asked question is "What do you get for all that money?" What, they wonder, is the "ROI" -- the return on the investment? Usually that question is being asked by parents, who typically shoulder the burden of paying college tuition bills.

So I was honored -- and enlightened -- when I was recently asked to speak at Fairfield University's multicultural scholarship dinner and had an opportunity to talk to some of the students about their personal experiences and what a college education means to them. Their lessons speak volumes about the importance of higher education in America at a time when we consistently hear that our country is falling behind others globally.

Many of them were first-generation members of their families to attend college, and they were enormously proud of that privilege, as were their parents. Their stories, which are dissimilar in many ways, share many common characteristics -- most notably that getting accepted to college and being given financial assistance changed their lives and made them look at the world differently.

I developed a new awe for Fairfield after spending time with the students. All of us who attended the dinner understand the importance of education. All of us also believe in trying to make a difference and recognize that the demands of helping those in need can sometimes be overwhelming.

Greg, a senior heading to law school, is from Honduras, and he shared with me how he and his twin brother were orphaned when they were just babies. His American parents came to Honduras to adopt a little girl and ended up falling in love with these two little boys. His mother, a bank teller, and his father, a plumber, did not go to college, and they had one dream for their children, which was to send them to college. However, they couldn't afford to send both of them, but if they were lucky, maybe they could swing sending one of them.

Even though he and his brother were both at the top in their class, his parents decided Greg's brother would be the one to go to college. Greg wasn't upset because he figured that was just how it had to be, so Greg decided he would follow in his father's foot steps... until Fairfield University stepped in and was able to make the formula work. The school recognized his academic strengths, as well as his ability to run track, and offered him a scholarship.

The reality was that if the school offered Greg any less money than he needed to make the formula work, he would not be able to attend. In the end, the university came through, and now Greg is about to graduate and attend law school.

As he expressed his gratitude for what he received, he talked to me in great detail about "paying it forward." Most importantly, he was thrilled with the chance to do his part in the world, thanks to the opportunity the school had given him.

Another young man, Rafique from Norwalk, who is a senior, could not have pursued his dream of being an electrical engineer without the financial assistance at Fairfield and the scholarship money he received. He had an outstanding four years at Fairfield University, where he served as a resident adviser and participated in the leadership program.

He also received a grant from NASA to create a biomedical device that measures bone density using infrared light. Now, he plans to head off to graduate school to become a biomedical engineer.

Minhhue's parents are from Vietnam, and since his mother does not speak English, Min wanted to stay close to his home in Bridgeport, so he could translate for her. He talked about how close the university is, and he was worried about being a commuter and not being able to enjoy the full university experience, but that never happened because the facility, his classmates and the atmosphere made it truly feel like a home away from home.

I asked Minhhue what his plans are for after graduation. I was actually worried about his answer because so many students cannot find jobs. He said that last year he had some health issues but was able to connect with the human resources person at Deloitte when they were on campus and landed an internship. He subsequently was offered a full-time job in Stamford starting this summer.

These young people are America's future. They are the products of a liberal arts education, and they have been given a chance at a new life because people with vision offered them scholarships.

We all believe in the importance of education, we all believe in giving back and we all believe in ROI. In my opinion, there is no better ROI. These young people have been given a tremendous opportunity because others were willing to invest in them. As a result, they are going to make this world a better place and clearly recognize the importance of giving back.

Cindi Bigelow
is president of R.C. Bigelow Tea Co.