Twenty-some years later, now director of global sales for Google, Hagberg credits her wide-ranging liberal arts education with preparing her for her demanding business career.
It might seem counter-intutitive — especially to parents cringing at tuition bills and poetry seminars. But Hagberg said she quickly learned that in the school’s small classes, she had to have done the work, be ready to answer tough questions, and able to explain her ideas effectively. After graduating in 1997, she took what she thought was a placeholder job — working at America Online — and soon had the drinking-from-a-fire-hose feeling of learning everything possible in a fast-changing environment. Liberal arts helped teach her to be nimble, and to speak up. “The pace of digital disruption is just incredible,” she said. “You have to be comfortable with that chaos.”
There has been a lot of skepticism about the value of a liberal arts education, a feeling that tends to spike during economic downturns, prompting many students and parents to seek training focused on a specific career. Some small liberal arts colleges have closed, or considered closing, in recent years. But a new study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce finds that over the course of a career, a liberal arts education is remarkably practical, providing a median return on investment 40 years after enrollment that approaches $1 million. The results, searchable and sortable by institution, were released Tuesday.
The return isn’t typically immediate — at 10 years, the median return is $62,000 — but over the decades of a career, it is solid. Only doctoral universities with the two highest levels of research activity, well-known institutions such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fared better in the school’s estimated return on investment. The median 40-year return of $918,000 at liberal arts colleges is more than 25 percent higher than the median for all colleges, researchers found.
Over a long period, the ideal preparation includes specific education in a field linked to a career, such as engineering, with the addition of general education that allows a person to be flexible and draw on a wealth of knowledge, according to Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “That’s why over a 30-40-year period, a liberal arts education does well.”
In Europe higher education tends to be more directed to specific careers, he said, while in the United States it’s more typical to have a major and a variety of other classes. “It turns out in an economy where there are a lot of changes … that combination makes you more flexible,” he said, “and gives you more opportunity in the long run.”
For some professors the idea of return on investment from college is antithetical. They would argue higher education is designed “to make you a better thinker,” Carnevale said, “to pursue knowledge for its own sake, not to get a job or some other extrinsic value.” But most members of the public think of college as a means to a job, he said.
“I have this conversation day in and day out,” said Michelle Chamberlain, associate vice president of advancement and dean of student opportunities at Claremont McKenna College. “When I talk to prospective families, not only do I get the question about, “Is this liberal arts education going to pay off?’ — with ‘liberal arts’ in air quotes — but also, ‘I don’t want my son or daughter to be a philosophy major.’” She explains that critical thinking, writing skills, the ability to think across disciplines, the technical classwork, the internship experiences students have all provide good preparation for the work force — and are things employers are seeking.
The Georgetown study follows a larger analysis using net present value to estimate return on investment at more than 4,500 colleges and universities across the country. In this case, they examined institutions listed by the Carnegie Classification system as Baccalaureate Colleges: Arts & Sciences Focus — what most people think of as liberal arts colleges, schools primarily offering bachelor’s degrees.
The researchers found considerable variability within the group, with the most selective schools producing significantly higher returns than the median. Schools with high graduation rates tended to have better results. Schools with a high proportion of students studying business, engineering, science, technology and mathematics typically had higher returns on investment. Location seems to be a factor as well, with earnings higher in some parts of the country.
Harvey Mudd College, with its emphasis on science, engineering and math, had the highest ranking among the 200-plus liberal arts colleges for net present value at 40 years: $1.85 million. Washington and Lee was second, with a 40-year return they calculated at $1.58 million. Claremont McKenna College also ranked among the top 50 of all colleges for its 40-year returns.
At Washington and Lee, there are three accredited programs that most liberal arts colleges don’t have, said John Jensen, dean of career and professional development — its law school, and undergraduate journalism and business programs.
Julianna Keeling was very focused on return on investment when she was applying to colleges, she said. Coming from a high school focused on math and science in Richmond, a liberal arts school wasn’t the obvious choice, especially for someone interested in medicine and developing plant-based polymers. A full scholarship offer drew her to Washington and Lee, where she took a wide variety of classes before her graduation in 2019. “Being forced to take history, English, literature really helped me to open up my mind to other types of ideas, to better find my passion,” she said. In one class, she traveled to the Southwest and learned some of the philosophy and culture of the Lakota people, ideas about ecology that influence her today.
She launched a company selling consumer products that people can easily compost at home. Did she miss the access to all the labs and resources of a large research university? “Yes, of course,” she said, “it would be great to have that. But I’m really happy with the education I got. It gave me the confidence to start Terravive, … and the leadership skills to build this company.”