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Is the endangered liberal arts major worth saving?

Simmons University, Boston’s only women’s college, is paring down its liberal arts departments, amid substantial financial challenges and declining graduate enrollment.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

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I used to say that three things marked me as a geezer: I subscribed to a daily newspaper, I had a landline telephone, and I carried cash. Now, I can add a fourth. I was a history major.

The decline of liberal arts education has been well documented by the Globe’s Hilary Burns, who, in recent months, has reported on the disappearance of small New England liberal arts colleges and plans to eliminate liberal arts programs at Simmons and Lasell universities. Last week, she interviewed presidents of liberal arts colleges who — spoiler alert — defended the value of liberal arts education as other institutions pivot to professionally focused programs.

Liberal arts have come under pressure from higher education’s rapidly rising costs, which have increased over the decades at twice the rate of inflation. My parents (and I) paid between $5,000 and $6,000 a year to put me through a small liberal arts college. When adjusted for inflation, that works out to less than $30,000; the sticker price at my school today approaches $65,000.


The rapid rise in college costs (although increases have slowed in recent years) have been attributed to several factors, including increased regulation, more student services, and greater access to loans and grants, which have made it easier for families to accept tuition increases.

Empire building has also contributed. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that state flagship universities expanded rapidly over the past two decades, spending freely on new buildings, big-time sports, and payrolls padded with administrators. Higher tuition bills followed.


The cost of a bachelor’s degree, according to the Education Data Initiative, a nonprofit research group, can top $500,000, including interest and income lost while studying instead of working. Average federal student loan debt reaches almost $40,000. For many students, high costs and onerous debt make studying English, art history, and philosophy a luxury they can’t afford.

It shouldn’t be that way. Beyond the ideals of well-rounded individuals and engaged citizens, liberal arts education has an economic case. Our fast changing economy demands a workforce that can quickly adapt to new technologies, new markets, and new business conditions. The very nature of liberal arts education, which emphasizes a breadth of knowledge — underpinned by independent, critical thinking — leads to adaptable, flexible workers.

This flexibility pays off in the long term, according to a study by Georgetown University. Over 40 years, Georgetown researchers found, liberal arts colleges produce a return on investment for their graduates that is 25 percent higher than that of all colleges.

The Simmons campusBarry Chin/Globe Staff

The problem is the short term, when the financial squeeze to repay loans is perhaps the greatest. In the 10 years after graduation, the return on investment from liberal arts colleges is 40 percent below that of all colleges, according to the Georgetown study, adding pressure on students to choose fields that pay higher starting salaries.

The solution for saving the endangered liberal arts student is, of course, reducing costs. Political leaders and policy wonks have proposed more state and federal support for higher education, expanded roles for low-cost community colleges, and accelerated public service loan forgiveness programs. More careful spending by colleges and universities might also help.


I wanted to study history from the time my mother came home from the grocery store and gave me the Classics Illustrated comics version of the French Revolution. As I grew up, my ideas about how I might make a living changed again and again, but I never wavered from my desire to become a history major — despite the inevitable question, “What are you going to do with that?”

Business, computer science, and engineering students, I’m sure, never get that question. They probably will find lucrative careers. Tech brainiacs specializing in artificial intelligence are commanding salaries of $900K, the Wall Street Journal recently reported.

So, do we need more English and history majors? Maybe not. But has there ever been a time when we more urgently needed people who could tell the difference between fiction and fact?