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Our family's liberal arts college experience
Old 06-08-2014, 03:08 PM   #1
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Our family's liberal arts college experience

I thought I would take a minute to share our family's experiences with our kids' decisions to attend small private liberal arts colleges and major in traditional liberal arts programs---e.g. history, psychology. While the sample size is admittedly small (my two kids) their experience helped to reinforce my belief that there is value in a liberal arts education both intrinsic, and economic.

Both kids were decent high school students, though not exceptional---top 10% of their class, decent extracurricular activities, etc. They applied to a number of better known private universities--got into a few of those schools with no merit based aid. Based on our income/assets, no need-based aid was awarded. In general, the price of these schools (room/board/tuition/fees/books/travel) averaged upwards of $50K per year. The kids also applied to some smaller, and definitely lesser known liberal arts colleges, but all were certainly able to provide a strong college education. All of these smaller schools offered the kids significant merit based aid---I think they have to in order to attract kids of with higher academic credentials. In our case, it meant that the four year cost of school for each child was about $100K all in. We had put aside enough money to fund this without taking out loans, remortgaging the house, etc.

Obviously, you never know what would have happened if the kids had gone to larger state schools, or spent two years at a community college and then transferred, but our kids genuinely excelled while in school. In my mind, a big part of this was the smaller classes that were a part of their curriculum. Very few classes ever had more than 15 students (a few of the introductory ones were larger). They got a lot of attention, and had access to all of their instructors who were professors not graduate students, and the profs seemed to be focused on teaching as opposed to research. Having said that, the Professors did do research, and both kids did had the opportunity to work directly with their professors in doing that research. With my kids, I suspect that would not have happened at a larger institution.

In terms of the quality of their education, that is hard to quantify. I can make some subjective evaluations, and say that I am impressed with the breadth of knowledge the kids acquired in schools. They are conversant in a large number of subject, are able to think critically and express their thoughts very clearly both verbally and in writing. I like the fact they know about the House of Medici, and have an understanding of basic physics. Are these things marketable? Directly, no, but I still think there is a value/worth in knowing these things---being cognizant of history and understanding how the world around us works.

At graduation, both kids had job offers--"real" jobs with benefits (shockingly one even has a pension). The salaries were certainly not what a Chemical Engineering (or other STEM) major would have received, but they are earning enough to live on their own (by that I mean not in mom and dad's house--they both have roommates), and have a foot in the door with companies that have a career track, and should allow them to gain some professional experience and increase their future marketability. Could they have chosen majors which would have resulted in higher career earning---absolutely "yes", but neither of them had that calling. Could they have gotten these jobs without a college education---hard to say. I think the answer is "no" but I could be wrong. In my kids case, I think their liberal arts college curriculums helped to improve their communication and analysis skills, and I have to believe that made at least some positive impression on their employers.

So, on the whole, I was pretty happy how things worked out. While they were in school, I was honestly, a bit dubious that they would be able to find work with just their BAs in "touchy feely" fields, but I was apparently wrong. So, I am not yet ready to pile on and say a liberal arts degree is useless---kind of gives me some hope that liberal arts are still viable.
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Old 06-08-2014, 03:50 PM   #2
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Could you elaborate some on the degree to which the college provided access to jobs for graduates in terms of things like internships, career advisory/placement activities such as job fairs and corporate visits, networking with alumni, etc.? My observation is that these become especially important outside of the non-STEM majors, and it is important for a school to be strong in these areas and for students to take advantage of them.
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Old 06-08-2014, 04:27 PM   #3
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Could they have gotten these jobs without a college education---hard to say. I think the answer is "no" but I could be wrong. In my kids case, I think their liberal arts college curriculums helped to improve their communication and analysis skills, and I have to believe that made at least some positive impression on their employers.
Others with actual hiring experience will chime in but I'd think that having the BA degrees shows that if nothing else they have the persistence to finish a project. Surely any potential employer would notice that?

That's great to hear the kids are launched and have promising futures.
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Old 06-08-2014, 04:41 PM   #4
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I, DW and her two brothers all graduated from small, private Liberal Arts schools in the late 60's and early 70's. Post mortem, it seems we all had satisfactory careers despite the commonly held belief that you'll starve to death due to the liberal arts.

We had reasonably enjoyable careers including a high school math teacher, a govt employed geologist, a middle school special ed teacher and a MegaCorp operations manager.

I'm sure there would have been more money in a STEM based career, but we did what we did and found a way to get by financially.
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Old 06-08-2014, 05:13 PM   #5
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I think many older people have a hard time understanding that it is very difficult to get a job in corporate America without a college degree nowadays.

Many of the jobs that Boomers hold with no degree are ones that will require a degree for the next generation.

Even the entry level jobs require a degree for all practical purposes.

So a liberal arts degree generally still has plenty of value to justify the expense. It's not the best financial option, but it sure beats sticking with the high school diploma and working for $8/hr.


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Could they have gotten these jobs without a college education---hard to say. I think the answer is "no" but I could be wrong.
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Old 06-08-2014, 06:37 PM   #6
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So, I am not yet ready to pile on and say a liberal arts degree is useless---kind of gives me some hope that liberal arts are still viable.
I doubt many will say a liberal arts degree is literally useless. Absolute zero is a very low bar to clear. The questions are whether the same value can be obtained by spending less or whether they will get more value if they studied something else or somewhere else with the same education budget.
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Old 06-08-2014, 09:30 PM   #7
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I think they have to in order to attract kids of with higher academic credentials. In our case, it meant that the four year cost of school for each child was about $100K all in. We had put aside enough money to fund this without taking out loans, remortgaging the house, etc.
I think part of the equation for determining how viable a degree is would be are you able to pay off the associated student loans following completion of the degree and entry into the workforce.

It sounds like you paid for you children's education and so they aren't facing the 100k in student loans which might make determining true viability of a degree difficult.
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Old 06-08-2014, 09:30 PM   #8
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I know STEM is all the rage, and has been for some time. But you mention something important. "a calling" There's nothing worse than going into STEM if you have no interest in it. I saw many burn out in college, and flame out even worse if they make it to the workforce.

I've done great with STEM. But I was a nerd and loved science and math. Ironically, my forced humanities education in college awakened something in my I never knew existed, and history has become a hobby of mine. If that kind of thing is a calling, go for it, but keep it "liberal" enough to not be too specialized. (Can always specialize in graduate school if necessary.)

Finally, I want to say that the WORLD has taken notice of STEM and is encouraging their youth to embrace it. India, China, Russia and others are focusing on it. You will be competing with the world. It is getting harder. Wages are feeling the effects.
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Old 06-08-2014, 09:42 PM   #9
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I've done great with STEM. But I was a nerd and loved science and math. Ironically, my forced humanities education in college awakened something in my I never knew existed, and history has become a hobby of mine. If that kind of thing is a calling, go for it, but keep it "liberal" enough to not be too specialized. (Can always specialize in graduate school if necessary.)
+1

I majored in engineering so I could make money. It was easy enough and worked out as expected.

I also majored in the humanities (Spanish Language and Literature) out of interest. Like you, Joe, I took a couple of extra history courses for my BA and history somehow came alive in a way it never did during all the years of high school history (including AP history courses). Did the BA help me in my career? Probably. It made me a better writer and communicator.

The biggest gain was opening the door to literature and history which remain as two of my interests today in my post-employment world of early retirement. I'm glad I spent the extra year or so in college to get the BA.
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Old 06-08-2014, 10:50 PM   #10
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I am glad the Liberal Arts degrees worked out for your family, but most parents in the U.S. don't have enough saved for retirement let alone a spare $100K per kid to spend on college -

A Look at Household Net Worth and Household Income By Age Group from the 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances

Student debt in the U.S. is at $1.2 trillion (trillion with a T). A liberal arts degree paid for with loans and a poor ROI is not a good financial investment for most students, and families not needing loans and $100K+ in savings to spend per kid on college may want a better ROI for that kind of money.
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Old 06-08-2014, 11:59 PM   #11
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As much as I agree that having a stable financial future is important, there is something to be said about being interested and passionate about what one does day in and day out for many years.

DH and I are both in tech, we often get asked by family and friends about if their kids should major in CS in college. The first questions I ask are does your kid like it, is he/she interest in it and good at it. Yes, the money can be very very good but it is not for everyone.

S1 didn't want to be a STEM major and is doing very well after college. S2 is a STEM major and he has been wanting to do it since high school.

There should be a balance some where in considering college cost, debt, ROI, future job, interest and passion.
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Old 06-09-2014, 07:29 AM   #12
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I like STEM but never had the self discipline to do anything with it. My entire family have done very well with liberal arts educations and that continues with my son and daughter. I think a LA BS/BA degree is a good ticket to get punched for anyone who doesn't really know what they want to do. It is helpful to get through the gates into whatever avenue you end up choosing. I suspect that the most important things are more to do with personality than quality of education. Things like the ability to play well with others, trustworthiness, etc. DW (who was a very successful lawyer) said she would always hire a B student with a good personality over a brilliant A student with no people skills. I think that consideration applies to lots of generic management jobs although I would go for brilliant for hands on jobs in technical fields. The ideal of course is brilliant and personable - I hate those guys.
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Old 06-09-2014, 07:40 AM   #13
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So, on the whole, I was pretty happy how things worked out. While they were in school, I was honestly, a bit dubious that they would be able to find work with just their BAs in "touchy feely" fields, but I was apparently wrong. So, I am not yet ready to pile on and say a liberal arts degree is useless---kind of gives me some hope that liberal arts are still viable.
Touchy feely graduate here. My youngest just graduated as a nurse. Older kid graduated with a technical degree. They'll both do fine, just as yours will.

I steered mine into these career paths as I felt my own start was delayed greatly due to the lack of focus of my own touchy feely education. I really wanted them to be able to look in the job listings and see how many opportunities existed.

As for debt, the older one paid off his student loans within 5 years. His salary has probably doubled in 5-6 years, so he had the resources. The younger one is graduating with no debt. She has ongoing interviews, but needs to pass test and get license for most jobs in the field.

It is interesting to hear the stories of kids from their graduating HS classes. Some get the 4-year degree and do well. Others decide to go back for more focus, like accelerated nursing program, culinary school, etc.
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Old 06-09-2014, 08:13 AM   #14
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DW, her two brothers and I all graduated from small, private Liberal Arts schools in the late 60's and early 70's. Post mortem, it seems we all had satisfactory careers despite the commonly held belief that you'll starve to death due to the liberal arts.
That was then. One of our friends got out of U. Toronto in the early 1970s with a degree in English Literature and was hired by a major bank in the Commercial Real Estate Lending area. He retired recently from a lucrative career. It used to be that a degree from a respected school- any degree- would get you in the door. Now there are tons of mediocre schools and tons of people with touchy-feely degrees and employers can be a lot more picky. I'm happy to read about the OP's kids but I think they're exceptional. If I had a child who wanted to go for a non-STEM major I'd make sure he/she had a good idea of what they might be able to do with it and what compensation that might entail.

My only child got a Math degree and ended up as a claims adjuster for an insurance company. He loves it. Frankly, any intelligent person who's good with people and has some decent quantitative skills could do that job but I think that the Math degree from a respected liberal arts school (Drake) got his foot in the door.
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Old 06-09-2014, 08:16 AM   #15
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I think it appropriate to express a parent's opinion to their kids about the pros and cons of the various college paths, but ultimately the kid should decide whats right for them. I suspect if engineering and science (pursuing max ROI) were the only options, the world would be a pretty dull place.
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Old 06-09-2014, 09:03 AM   #16
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Thanks to the OP for taking the time to write this post. Both interesting and informative.
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Old 06-09-2014, 09:07 AM   #17
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Frankly, pushing a kid into engineering when their heart isn't in it is a recipe for a bunch of failed classes and extra student loan debt.

The kid has to have both the aptitude and desire to slog through it. If either of those is missing, they are almost guarrenteed to fail out.

Heck, a pretty large portion of the kids with the aptitude and desire fail out.


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I think it appropriate to express a parent's opinion to their kids about the pros and cons of the various college paths, but ultimately the kid should decide whats right for them. I suspect if engineering and science (pursuing max ROI) were the only options, the world would be a pretty dull place.
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Old 06-09-2014, 09:14 AM   #18
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Frankly, pushing a kid into engineering when their heart isn't in it is a recipe for a bunch of failed classes and extra student loan debt.

The kid has to have both the aptitude and desire to slog through it. If either of those is missing, they are almost guarrenteed to fail out.

Heck, a pretty large portion of the kids with the aptitude and desire fail out.
They say 50%, and at my university, that was true. When I think of my classmates in engineering, about 10% just quit college. The other 40% switched majors. Many went into education, although a few went into business and liberal arts. Two of my friends are very successful in business now. One runs his own landscaping business, the other is a manager at a manufacturing plant.

And then there are those who make it through to the working world and flame out there. The #1 reason I see that happen is lack of communication skills. STEM is great, but if you are at a college that somehow allows you to never have to write a paper or express yourself in written and spoken thought, you are sunk. Seen that a few times.
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Old 06-09-2014, 09:17 AM   #19
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Liberal arts and STEM are not mutually exclusive. I have a BA in Computer Science from a small liberal arts college. I didn't get the same depth in my major as I could have gotten from an engineering school, but I got that in grad school. And the liberal arts education made me much more adaptable/flexible than others I worked with who specialized from day 1. As a result, I survived many rounds of layoffs when my company was in turmoil, was employed continuously, and therefore able save $ and pull the plug early.

Flexibility and adaptability are keys in today's job market, since entire industries can appear or disappear within a very short time.
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Old 06-09-2014, 09:35 AM   #20
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college degrees give one a foot in the door. I lucked out (worked hard) through two years of liberal arts, BS in Biology, MS and PhD in an advanced field. Some of us were more successful than others, mostly depending on how much extra effort we were willing to put into our jobs. I see this in every field, from law to medicine to IT.
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