THE BLOG
06/09/2014 09:43 am ET | Updated Aug 09, 2014

What Is the Value of a Liberal Arts Education? The Answer Is an Open Book

Efforts to explain why a "liberal arts" education matters keep falling short. The rising price tag for a "liberal" education, including the increasing level of student loan balances and defaults, has critics painting higher education as not worth the paper on which a diploma is printed. Limited employment opportunities add fuel to this fire. For individuals from foreign nations, the value of the liberal arts remains an enigma.

What we need is an answer to propel our nation back to the leadership role in educated citizenry. We need an answer for those first generation students and families, returning service men and women as they re-enter civilian life and those adult students for whom college never was a goal but now has become a necessity.
These are the students of today and tomorrow, whom we want and need to attract to higher education. It is these individuals who will help us to become, once again, the most educated nation in the world.

Recent efforts to demonstrate the individual and social good of a college degree (improved health; increased happiness; better employment opportunities and greater lifetime earnings; higher levels of civic engagement and community involvement; social equality) aren't hitting home. Neither does the fact that employers want liberal arts and sciences graduates. The acquisition of critical thinking skills, problem solving capacity and ability to innovate don't have tangible meaning for many. The notion that education's true worth is "priceless" and can't be monetized doesn't satisfy many first generation families.

At Southern Vermont College, where many of our students are the first in their families to attend college, we have recently entered into a partnership with Shires Press that is run by Northshire Bookstore, a remarkable independent bookstore in our region with its own press label and publishing services. Under the terms of the partnership, our students across disciplines enroll in four courses that will lead at the end to a published book. The College is absorbing the costs of publication. The SVC student-produced books, up to 10 a year, will be sold through Northshire in their retail shops (in Manchester, Vermont and Saratoga Springs, New York) and online catalogue. Students will receive royalties for copies sold and will participate in book signing events for their own work and that of other authors both from SVC and elsewhere.

Call these books symbolic representation of the liberal education. Their benefits are plentiful.

Start with the fact that writing a book--a deliverable--entails many of the skills employers want to see in their employees: capacity to start and complete a project; ability to communicate effectively; willingness to accept and benefit from criticism; work well with others; meet deadlines; demonstrate vision and creativity; and respond to and surmount problems and hurdles. Imagine the positive reaction of an employer to a job applicant whose resume shows a published book, regardless of the subject. Whatever the job and whatever the book's topic, there is a clear demonstration of skills that will enable workplace success. And a recent Gallup Poll demonstrated the value, in terms of workplace satisfaction, of graduates who worked closely with a professor and engaged in a project that extended for at least a semester.

For many first generation students and their families, a book symbolizes knowledge and education. How meaningful will it be for these individuals to see their child's name on the spine of a book and how much pride will the students feel when they become published authors? At a recent SVC Admissions Open House, I asked our visitors how many have ever wanted to write a book, and hands flew into the air. We all have stories to tell and things to write. Whether one can produce that book is the more challenging question. What we are doing at SVC is making publication--that dream--possible through a series of four courses, support from faculty and the press, and an institutional commitment to student success.

Add to all this, the potential for SVC authors to receive royalties. Earning even a small amount lifts pride and self-assurance. Not to mention that the cost of education is large and the enormity of student debt is a reality. If students can earn royalties while they are in school and post-graduation, that will facilitate less borrowing and a possible pay-down of some student indebtedness. True, some books will likely never generate much in royalties. But, the possibility is there, and the power of the possible has value.

I understand and appreciate that a partnership that enables book publications for ten Southern Vermont College students each year is not the only answer to the question about the value of an education. But, if 20 other colleges adopted a similar program, then there is some heft to the effort. And, if more and more first generation students and families can share their understanding of the value of a college degree, that too can have a ripple effort.

Now, that is a conversation worth having as we develop more and better ways to encourage and explain the value of the receipt of a quality education that leads to an undergraduate degree. There is a book to be written about these different, new approaches. Anyone interested?