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Liberal arts education is right for the 21st century: Recent empirical evidence [1] ___

---Young people are urged to develop skills required for this century in order to remain competitive in the current and future workplace. These skills include critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration (the 4Cs, also referred to as crucial "21st Century skills") [2]. Also important are information literacy skills and life and career skills, with the latter including leadership and social skills. Furthermore, behavioral traits such as self-motivation, lifelong learning, entrepreneurial spirit, integrity, as well as personal and social responsibility are regarded as highly desirable. These skills and traits are considered more important than ever before because we are in an era that will be increasingly dominated by information technology (ICT), especially automation and artificial intelligence (AI). Some people refer to this era as that of the 4th Industrial Revolution.  

According to a recent study published by McKinsey in December 2017, Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation, the estimated job displacement by automation ranges from 75 to 375 million by 2030. Along with predictions of job displacement also comes the perception that “an increasing percentage of activities that workers will do in the future will be in categories such as managing and leading other people and interacting with others, which require skills such as social and emotional sensing and reasoning, and applying creativity and collaborative problem-solving.” To help our future generations cope with such unprecedented changes, it is imperative that our education system be fine-tuned to develop these skills. The study advises that a foundation of the best liberal arts education (LAE) be combined with strong professional and technical skill training.  

While advocates for specialized education, especially in STEM subjects, where the acronym STEM stands for 'science, technology, engineering and mathematics,' argue that graduates in these subjects make more money than non-STEM graduates, advocates for LAE often respond by arguing that the graduates of LAE, regardless of their fields of study, will fare better in the longer term. But is there any systematic evidence that supports the LAE advocates’ claim? 

I am glad to report that now there are a number of studies that show the value of LAE in terms of learning outcomes, life outcomes, and economic benefits. Using the first wave data of the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education for the US, Seifert et al. (2008) have demonstrated that LAE experiences are positively associated with four out of six liberal arts outcomes, i.e. a) intercultural effectiveness, b) inclination to inquire and lifelong learning, c) well-being and d) leadership. [3]  This study, with a sample of over 1,000 students collected with a randomized experimental approach, appears to be more convincing than many others.  

In a forthcoming monograph that is based on interviews with 1,000 US university graduates between the age of 25 and 65, Detweiler has found that positive life outcomes (such as leadership, altruism and fulfilment) are closely related to the following LAE practices in descending order of importance: (1) frequently talked with faculty about non-academic and academic subjects outside of class; (2) had a college mentor with lasting impact; (3) discussed issues such as peace, justice, human rights, or equality with students outside of class; (4) more than half of courses outside one’s major; (5) most professors know student’s first name; (6) actively participated in university organization; (7) coursework frequently involved questions to which there is not necessarily a right answer; (8) classes where discussion is a critical part of learning; (9) college experiences involving activism; (10) lived in campus housing for at least three years. [4] However, he also points out that amongst these factors, positive life outcomes have more to do with educational context than educational content.  

There are two recent empirical studies that demonstrate the long-term economic benefits of LAE. First, Deming and Noray (2019) have shown that while graduates from STEM majors earn a higher starting wage, their age-earnings profile is generally flatter than graduates from other majors due to the fast speed of obsolescence of the former’s skills. [5] Second, with the return of investment (ROI) measured by the net present value (NPV) of college/universitygraduates’ lifetime earnings 40 years after graduation.  Carnevale et al. (2020)  find that the average ROI of liberal arts college graduates ($918,000)  is 27% higher than that of graduates from other institutions ($723,000). [6] The results from these two studies confirm that LAE not only prepares students with the right type of skills to meet the challenge in the 21st Century but also does so in a cost-effectiveway because the higher costs of receiving an LAE have been netted out in the calculation of net present values. 


[1] This article in based on President Cheng's paper presented at the Annual Presidents’ Forum of the Alliance of Asian Liberal ArtsUniversities held on 12 November 2020.   

[2] The 4Cs are championed by the “Partnershipfor 21st Century Learning (P21), an US advocacy group of teachers, education experts, businessleaders and policy makers based in Washington, D.C. See   

[3] Seifert, Tricia A., Kathleen M. Goodman, Nathan Lindsay,James D. Jorgensen , Gregory C. Wolniak, Ernest T. Pascarella, and Charles Blaich, “The Effects of Liberal Arts Experiences on Liberal Arts Outcomes”, Research in Higher Education, 49:107-125, 2008.    

[4] Detweiler, Richard, Impact! The Evidence Liberal Arts Needs. MIT Press, 2021.    

[5] Deming, David J. and Kadeem L. Noray, “STEM Careers and the Changing Skill Equilibrium of Work”, NBER Working Paper Series: 25065, 2019.    

[6] Carnevale, Anthony P., Ban Cheah, and Martin Van Der Werf, “ROI of Liberal Arts Colleges.” Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University, 2020.    

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