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How much is a liberal arts degree worth?

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Is it a smart idea to be a philosophy major in college? How about Hellenic studies? Perhaps fine art? Common sense might indicate not. After all, each...

Is it a smart idea to be a philosophy major in college?

How about Hellenic studies? Perhaps fine art?

Common sense might indicate not. After all, each year the list of best and worst paying majors comes out, and practical engineering majors perennially claim more than double the starting salary of liberal arts majors.

It's no surprise, then, that applications are dropping to liberal arts schools that shun professionally-minded degrees for traditional ones.

A Washington Post article details the choices financially-pressed families are making for their college-age members, in which majors with apparent "skills" are more heavily favored than those majors that comprise the liberal arts.

After all, what can you do with a Classics degree?

The Post reports on dwindling applications at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md.:

The experience at St. John's is representative of many small, private liberal arts colleges across the country, according to presidents and admissions officials interviewed. Several schools reported a falloff in applications because of the economic downturn, and some struggled to fill the freshman class.

Liberal arts colleges have had to defend the marketability of a philosophy major for as long as competing public and private institutions have offered degrees in engineering and business, often at a lower cost. But never, perhaps, have families weighed the value of a liberal education more carefully than in the 2009-10 admissions cycle, which found the nation mired in its worst recession since the 1930s.

[...]

St. John's is one of a handful of American colleges that offer a curriculum built upon great works of literature, art, science and mathematics. Students read and discuss texts by Homer, Euclid, Chaucer and Einstein. There are no majors; students graduate with broad knowledge in several disciplines but a specialty in none, and without anything approaching vocational skills. Investing in a St. John's education requires a leap of faith.

The same goes for other "Great Books" schools, who are also seeing declining applications.

The argument? A liberal arts degree won't get you a job.

Worse, going to a liberal arts school only means you'll have to attend graduate school -- another year to three years of several-thousand-dollar tuition -- to get specific skills for a trade or industry.

How much, exactly, is a liberal arts degree worth?

Bill Spellman at Inside Higher Ed writes that 17th century philosopher John Locke used his liberal arts education, not his medical degree, to write the landmark Two Treatises of Government:

The resiliency of the liberal arts college has been demonstrated across many generations, and with the addition of a growing public liberal arts sector to reaffirm the value of broad-based learning in a small campus setting, the future offers great promise. We should applaud, not criticize, liberal arts colleges that respond to the growing demand for skilled professionals in a variety of applied fields. These graduates will bring to their work the habits of critical inquiry and the integration of knowledge -- both liberal arts outcomes -- that serve to temper the narrow instrumentalism often found at the center of our professional lives.

And Lane Sullivan, writing on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog at The Atlantic, writes that her semoitics degree from Brown University didn't teach her practical skills in the most literal sense, but taught her the dedication, diversity of thought and willingness to buck convention that she used to be successful.

She interviews Cirrus Design Corp. founder Alan Klapmeier, who says:

"[A liberal arts school] teaches you how to think for yourself. My professors didn't tell you you were wrong. They convinced you you were wrong. And if they couldn't, you might end up changing their minds on something. Figuring out for yourself what right and wrong is builds a huge bit of confidence. The kind that makes you think maybe we can take on an industry."

And yet only 8 percent of degrees are in the humanities, even lower during the 1980s recession, according to a New York Times article.

In this recession, a liberal arts degree that investigates what life is living for may be a luxury that can't be afforded, to paraphrase that article.

Science, trade and profession -- or liberal arts?

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure