Is the Four-Year, Liberal-Arts Education Model Dead?

This may sound like an issue for the high school debate club, but it's arguably a more suitable subject for cost-benefit analysis. Is the classic, four-year, liberal arts education a dying model?

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More and more people are questioning the practicality of a traditional bachelor of arts degree as the United States struggles to create jobs in a global economy while U.S. colleges fail to contain tuition costs.

A college degree used to be the ticket to a middle-class life, says Richard K. Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and professor of economics at Ohio University.

“Now we graduate more people from college than we have jobs for," he explains. "A college diploma doesn’t really cut it anymore as a sure path to success. Nowadays you need a masters degree or an M.B.A. One-quarter of fast-food restaurant managers have college diplomas.”

That may help explain consecutive 10 percent annual increases in vocational, technical and community college enrollment and the closure of dozens of traditional liberal arts colleges.

A Pew Research Center survey of 220,000 incoming freshman for the 2009-2010 academic year found that 56.5 percent said it was "very important" to pick a college whose graduates found good jobs.

“Skeptics now treat the study of liberal arts and humanities as luxuries that are not especially germane to preparing students to compete with peers from other nations in a global economy rocked by recession,” Undersecretary of Education Martha J. Kanter said in a 2010 speech. “The implication of all this is that liberal arts colleges provide a boutique, if charmingly antiquated, education for the 21st century."

Analysts note, however, that there's also skepticism about the education of students who follow a more career-specific track because they tend to lack the skills in critical thinking, writing and analysis that are necessary for success.

“Too many students are coming out of institutions who can’t put into words what they want to say, who are unable to incorporate different perspectives into their thinking and planning,” says Carrie Besnette Hauser, vice president for institutional advancement at Metropolitan State College of Denver.

For that reason and others, “The liberal arts are not going the way of the Oldsmobile,” said Kanter in her speech.

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Still, for a growing number of families the choice between critical thinking and marketable skills may be a matter of economic reality. Those affected by corporate downsizing or government layoffs can't afford the four-year, liberal-arts model, says Betty Krump, executive director of the American Technical Education Association.

“I think our society has figured out that technical education is the key to our future success, and that someone with a two-year associate degree or technical diploma will make more money entering the workforce than a person with a bachelor’s degree,” says Krump.

Even traditional champions of humanities education don’t disagree.

“It seems to me that the four-year program in the liberal arts and sciences is one of the genuine glories of American higher education, and a genuine American contribution to education worldwide,” says S. Frederick Starr, a research professor at John Hopkins University and president from 1983-1994 of Oberlin College, a classic liberal arts college in Ohio. “But I also regret that top liberal arts programs are already out of reach of more than a few good students.”

Another Pew Research study shows that the average debt load of a 2008 college graduate with a BA degree was some $23,000, versus $17,000 in 1996, a 50 percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Those predicting the death of the liberal arts degree also point to Roger Baldwin, an education professor at Michigan State University, whose recent study found that the number of liberal-arts colleges shrank from 212 in 1990 to 136 in 2009.

Among the most notable is Antioch College, which suspended operations in 2008.

Some of them were small institutions with limited endowments, and thus tuition driven.

“Others will get in trouble over the next 10 years, if costs keep going up," adds Vedder, a member of Pres. George W. Bush’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

Steven C. Bahls, president of the Augustana College, a liberal arts institution in Illinois, is determined to stay off the hit list.

CNBC Education and You 2011 - A CNBC Special Report
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Citing his "post-recession strategic plan," Bahls says the college's art department has added a major in graphic design, and the physics department an engineering track.

Vedder says such schools are making the right move by evolving their curricula in more vocational directions.

“That’s happening in some prestige schools, but less so—still, even Harvard toys with the idea of courses with a more vocational orientation," says Vedder.

Somewhere between the liberal arts and vocational training models lies a hybrid version, where, for instance, a philosophy major might spend summers working in a bank.

“Higher education and the job market are not mutually exclusive,” says Besnette of Metro State College. “Higher ed needs to prepare students for what the world is. As a student, you invest in yourself to become employable. It’s a perfect world to learn your theory at school and get your applied training at an on-the-job apprenticeship."

“If I were running a liberal arts college, that would be the way I’d go,” says Vedder. “I’d pump my alumni for internships."