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Is a liberal arts education a practical investment or waste of money? You might be surprised.

Washington and Lee University is a liberal arts college in Lexington, Va.Norm Shafer/Washington Post

When Erika Hagberg started Washington and Lee University, thought she wanted to be a doctor but quickly discarded the idea. She took journalism classes, business classes, music theory, history, calculus, economics, art history. ‘‘I had no idea what the hell I wanted to do with my life,’’ she said.

Some 20 years later Hagberg, now director of global sales for Google, credits her wide-ranging liberal arts education at the liberal arts school in Lexington, Va., with preparing her for a demanding business career.

A study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce finds that over the course of a career, a liberal arts education is remarkably practical, providing a median return on investment 40 years after enrollment that approaches $1 million. The results, searchable and sortable by institution, were released Tuesday.


It might seem counterintuitive, especially to parents cringing at tuition bills and poetry seminars. But Hagberg said she quickly learned that in the small classes at Washington and Lee, she had to prepare, be ready to answer tough questions, appreciate multiple perspectives, and explain her ideas effectively.

After graduating in 1997, Hagberg took what she thought was a placeholder job at AOL and soon had the drinking-from-a-fire-hose feeling of learning everything possible in a fast-changing environment. Liberal arts helped teach her to be nimble, and to speak up. ‘‘The pace of digital disruption is just incredible,’’ she said. ‘‘You have to be comfortable with that chaos.’’

There has been a lot of skepticism about the value of a liberal arts education, a feeling that tends to spike during economic downturns, prompting many students and parents to seek training for a specific career. Some small liberal arts colleges have closed, or considered closing, in recent years.

The Georgetown study finds that the return on a liberal arts education is not typically immediate — at 10 years, the median return is $62,000 — but over the decades of a career, it is solid. Only doctoral universities with the two highest levels of research activity, well-known institutions such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fared better in the school’s estimated return on investment. The median 40-year return of $918,000 at liberal arts colleges is more than 25 percent higher than the median for all colleges, researchers found.


Over a long period, the ideal preparation includes education in a field linked to a career, such as engineering, with the addition of general education that allows a person to be flexible and draw on a wealth of knowledge, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of the education and workforce center at Georgetown in Washington, D.C.

‘‘That’s why over a 30-to-40-year period, a liberal arts education does well,’’ he said.

‘‘I have this conversation day in and day out,’’ said Michelle Chamberlain, associate vice president of advancement and dean of student opportunities at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. ‘‘When I talk to prospective families, not only do I get the question about, ‘Is this liberal arts education going to pay off?’ — with ‘liberal arts’ in air quotes — but also, ‘I don’t want my son or daughter to be a philosophy major.’ ”

She explains that critical thinking, writing skills, the ability to think across disciplines, the technical classwork, the internship experiences of students — all provide good preparation for the workforce and are things employers are seeking.


The Georgetown study follows a more sweeping analysis by the center using federal data to calculate net present value to estimate return on investment at more than 4,500 colleges and universities across the country. The study takes into account factors including costs, financial aid and future earnings.