Making the Case for Liberal Education—and Its Economic Value: Talking Points

Main Messages

Liberal education is, by far, the best form of education to prepare today’s students to compete in a competitive global economy and to contribute as citizens to a diverse and globally engaged democracy.

Colleges and universities like ours are taking bold steps to make sure that liberal education prepares all students for the challenges they will face now and in the future.

What Is a Liberal Education and Why Is It So Important For Students Today?

Liberal education has been the signature educational tradition since our nation’s founding.   This tradition has made American higher education the envy of the world.

The broad goals of liberal education have been enduring but the practices that define a liberal education are very different from those of an earlier era.

Insert details of your own institution’s historical focus, mission, etc.  For example, “As a Jesuit institution, this college has always been committed to a liberal education that…”

In its current form, liberal education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings. Four hallmarks of today’s liberal education, then, include:

Broad knowledge of culture, society, science, technology, and history

Strong intellectual and practical skills

An examined sense of personal and social responsibility

A practiced ability to integrate knowledge, skills, and responsibilities learned across the curriculum and co-curriculum, and apply them productively in new problems and in new settings

Liberal education, in short, develops capacities that are essential in today’s world—essential for success in work, in their roles as citizens, and in their personal lives.  In fact, a consensus is emerging among employers, educators, and civic leaders that every college students should achieve a broad set of essential learning outcomes (see 2007 report, College Learning for the New Global Century).

Is Liberal Education still the Best Preparation for Success in Today’s World?

More than ever, the capacities developed by a liberal education are required for effective participation in a diverse democracy and are the most rewarded in a competitive knowledge economy characterized by rapid change and global competition.

Innovation is now key to success in the global economy.  Employers, therefore, look for employees who can contribute to developing new products, new services, new ways of doing business.

Job growth will be most robust in the future in professions that require at least 2 years of college.

But simply graduating from college isn’t enough.  The skills and capacities one develops there must be robust enough and flexible enough for graduates to thrive in a competitive global environment.

What Do Employers Want from College Graduates?

Employers seek graduates who can think outside the box, who are practiced and effective problem-solvers, and who are comfortable and skilled in fast-paced environments.

In light of high-profile recent scandals, employers also want employees with a strong sense of ethics, a sense of responsibility to their own integrity and to giving back to the community, and with wisdom and judgment, not just knowledge and skill.

Employers don’t necessarily use the term “liberal education.”  But they recognize the value of the skills it develops.  And careers where those skills are required include higher salaries than those that don’t require those skills.

“The only education that prepares us for change is a liberal education.  In periods of change, narrow specialization condemns us to inflexibility—precisely what we do not need.  We need the flexible intellectual tools to be problem solvers, to be able to continue learning over time.”

-David Kearns, Xerox Corporation

More than 70 percent of employers surveyed want colleges to place more emphasis on:

  • Science and technology
  • Teamwork skills in diverse settings
  • Written and oral communication
  • Critical and analytic reasoning
  • Applied knowledge in real-world settings
  • Global issues
  • Information literacy
  • Creativity and innovation

All these outcomes are a core focus of the kind of liberal education that our institution provides all our students.

Three-quarters of employers would, in fact, recommend a liberal education (as described above) to a young person they know.

In fact, students need a strong liberal education skill set just to get hired in today’s competitive job market.  But, once hired, these skills become even more important.  They will help students change occupations, be promoted within companies, and add value to whatever enterprise they pursue.

New data from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University reveals that simply graduating from college isn’t enough anymore. What really matters is what you know and can do after you graduate.And the more students have developed their abilities in broad areas of skills and knowledge, the better their chances are of not just getting a job, but getting a job that pays well.

For instance, to cite just one example among many, we know that in a fast paced global economy, employers want people who have top-notch writing and oral communication skills. Workers with the highest levels of competencies in these areas (the top quintile) earn more than double what people in the bottom quartile of these abilities earn.  Those with the best critical thinking skills can earn more than 65 percent more than those with the least well developed critical thinking skills.

These are precisely the kinds of skills and abilities that we work every day to help our students hone in order to be the best prepared graduates they can be in a most challenging economic environment.