Reflections on the value of of a liberal arts education

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The cost of higher education is a hot topic on Capitol Hill, in the headlines and at dinner tables across America.

• Why does it cost so much?

• How can graduates repay student loans if they can’t get good-paying jobs?

• How does studying liberal arts help in the real world?

• Does higher education really prepare young people for the jobs of the future?

These are all fair questions, and Notre Dame, like many of the nation’s most prestigious universities, has good answers.

Burish 3Provost Tom Burish

“I think all of us need to do a better job of explaining the value of higher education,” said Notre Dame Provost Tom Burish. “Most of the criticism of higher education tends to focus on high costs and student debt, which are important issues to be sure. However, the fact is that for most people the investment they make in earning a college degree is unquestionably one of the best they will ever make. Higher education profoundly and positively influences the course of a person’s life.”  However, the answers are neither short nor simple — and they require one to look beyond the ever-increasing cost of higher education.

By providing a core curriculum that emphasizes liberal arts, creativity and critical analysis, Notre Dame also prepares graduates to deal with the challenges of today and tomorrow.

In an article titled “How to prepare your kids for jobs that don’t exist yet” published on June 27 on, columnist Ruth Reader suggests that even with “robot domination seemingly impending,” the need for human intelligence will remain.

She writes, “Experts who study the future of work agree that our ability to make sense of the world is our biggest asset in the wake of automation. While artificial intelligence is good at narrow, repetitive tasks, humans are good at coming up with creative solutions.”

Reader interviewed Avi Goldfarb, coauthor of “Prediction Machines: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence,” who forecasted two career opportunities: people who build artificial intelligence and people who tell the machines what to do.

“While (Goldfarb) believes that most people will need a basic understanding of computer science, he thinks that studying art, philosophy, history, sociology, psychology and neuroscience could be key to preparing for the future,” Reader writes. Studying these subjects “will help young people to have a broad range of knowledge that they can use to put artificial to its best use.”

President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., speaks often about the relevance of a liberal arts education, as he did over the summer in an address at Oxford University, where he earned a doctorate in philosophy. 

“We often hear that education at universities is not particularly relevant to this or that profession, or that what someone needs to know for a particular profession could be delivered more efficiently than it is at universities,” Father Jenkins told the Oxford audience.

While a student could simply be trained for a specific occupation, he continued, universities offer something different: “training in the practices of inquiry at the highest level, by faculty at a very high level in their discipline, will give a student the knowledge and intellectual skills to flourish in a wide range of professional careers.”

While no one is satisfied with the rising costs of higher education, which have significantly outpaced cost-of-living increases for the past decade, the reality is that students today have a wide variety of financial aid programs on which to draw. At Notre Dame, for example, 68 percent of undergraduates receive aid in the form of merit and financial need-based scholarships. Many are offered the opportunity to work on campus to subsidize their education; others take out loans. 

Notre Dame is a “need-blind” university, meaning that a student or family’s ability to pay the cost of attending is not considered as part of the college application process.

Paul BrownePaul Browne

“We select students based on a combination of academic achievement and other factors, and it is only after they are accepted that we consider their financial situation,” explains Paul Browne, vice president for public affairs and communications. “And we work very closely with those admitted to make it possible to attend.”

Browne knows the “value of higher education” debate well and is quick to tell you that you get what you pay for in higher education. 

“I don’t think people understand that it’s very expensive to offer the type of education we do at Notre Dame,” Browne says. “We’re recruiting the very best faculty members, people who have dedicated a major portion of their lives to educate themselves through the Ph.D. level. We’re funding undergraduate research and study abroad programs that are models in higher education. And we’re conducting research at the leading edge of science and technology. The type of education one gets at Notre Dame is very expensive to provide.”

Moreover, Browne says, higher education is not intended for everyone.

“My brother is a smart individual who was completely bored with the idea of being behind a desk for four years of college,” he said. “He became a police officer because he wanted to engage in exciting, meaningful employment right away. In cases like this, why invest in college? If you’re a skilled carpenter or an apprentice in a union and you see a good living unfolding for you, it’s not worth the investment.”

Scrutiny or debate over the value of higher education is not a bad thing, says Browne. On the contrary. 

“It forces universities to examine how much are we charging for tuition, and we have to be sensitive to the fact that a lot of people can’t afford that,” he said.

A liberal arts education is an end in itself


The cost of a college education is an important consideration, says Mark W. Roche. “But what are you getting for the cost? What is the end goal?” 

Mark RocheMark Roche

 Roche, who served for 11 years as I.A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, is the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Professor of German Language and Literature and concurrent professor of philosophy. He is the author of nine books, including his most recent, “Realizing the Distinctive University” (Notre Dame Press, 2017), which expands on his views on higher education.

 From one point of view, he notes, the goal of a college education is getting a job and embarking on a career. “But a liberal arts education is not simply a means, it is also an end in itself — its value is higher than any cost. You can focus on career preparation at the expense of becoming an interesting, well-rounded person.”

 A distinctive liberal arts education has several aspects, Roche says. “Everyone benefits by asking great questions. ‘How did the planets form?’ ‘What is the meaning of death?’ ‘How does the mind/brain work?’ ‘Why do some countries stagnate, and others develop?’ Students develop as interesting persons by engaging such questions.

 “By opening their minds to the great works of earlier ages, to alternative traditions, by stepping back from the contemporary world and thinking about broader issues … a college education gives students meaning and serves

 In the course of a liberal arts education, students develop intellectual capacities and formal skills, he adds. “Being able to write well, think well, read well, speak well. Being able to persuade someone of a particular position. Understanding what’s important and what’s less important. Students become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty and avoid reducing issues to false black-and-white answers.”as an end in itself.”

 A third value, “and one we do particularly well at Notre Dame,” he says, “is to help students develop certain virtues of character and a sense of vocation. As a capstone of a liberal arts education, ideally the student is asking, ‘How can I make a difference in this world — not simply make money but find a vocation where I know I’m doing something valuable?’ That’s why vision is so important. For a university, or for any workplace environment, people must feel they are doing something to help others. That’s the kind of payback that transcends monetary compensation.”

 That’s not to say that liberal arts graduates are likely to earn less in the marketplace in the long run. Roche points to’s annual report. “It takes college graduates who did not go on for graduate education and asks about starting and mid-career salaries. You can look at the site and see, yes, an accountant on average makes a little more than a philosopher coming out of school. But by mid-career, the philosopher makes more. And when economists look at earnings, they also take into account that some people earn less than their potential. One of their favorite examples is a professor. An average professor at an average institution will probably earn less than if he or she had gone into business. But sometimes there are things that are of more value than money.”

 In the end, Roche adds, one of the most important liberal arts values is the desire — and the capacity — to continue to learn. “Think about it. You need to have the capacity to learn, and the breadth to know that you need to know how to continue to learn. That is what will allow you to flourish by mid-career.”

 At Notre Dame, in addition to a liberal arts education, Roche says, “you’re getting something absolutely distinctive. The marketplace doesn’t fully apply, because you’re not going to get a Notre Dame education elsewhere. The combination that Notre Dame offers, a traditional liberal arts college atmosphere with a strong emphasis on student learning and quality of teaching, is quite extraordinary. We’re blessed here by faculty who have a calling. We’re blessed by quality students, and we’re very eager to teach and mentor such students.”

 At the same time, Notre Dame is an increasingly dynamic and ambitious research university. “There has been a tremendous emphasis on teaching, but also on hiring endowed chairs and developing young faculty who have great potential. The research measures are rising dramatically in all the disciplines.”

 And Notre Dame is uniquely positioned as a Catholic institution of international standing.

“That gives us an entirely different sense of mission and community,” Roche says, “a different set of foci in our teaching and research — we are strong in areas such as sacred music, religion and literature, and religion and politics. Business and engineering look at ethical issues. So even if students pay full tuition, they’re getting something distinctive that they couldn’t get anywhere else. That’s why we have so much alumni support. People want to give to something distinctive.”

Author: Admin