Effects of Liberal-Arts Education

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

Richard A. Detweiler, president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, recently studied the long-term effects of a liberal-arts education:

Detweiler said he wanted to look at characteristics of the undergraduate experience and didn’t want to rely on whether graduates would identify their colleges as liberal arts institutions or not. First, he obtained a sample of 1,000 college graduates — some from lists of liberal arts colleges’ alumni and others from a random sample of the population of college graduates in the United States, a group in which liberal arts graduates are a minority. The sample was divided into groups of those 10 years, 20 years, and 40 years after graduation.

Those in the sample were then asked a series of questions about their undergraduate educational experiences and about their lives since college.

The questions about undergraduate experiences focused on qualities associated with (but not always unique to) liberal arts colleges. There were questions about the intimate learning environment associated with liberal arts colleges (Did most professors know your name? Did you talk with faculty members outside of class about academic issues and also about nonclasswork-related topics? Were most class sizes in your first year not more than 30?).

There were questions about intellectual competencies related to the skills liberal arts colleges say they teach. But rather than saying, “Were you taught critical thinking?” the survey subjects were asked whether their professors encouraged them to examine the strengths and weaknesses of their views, and those of others, and whether they spent class time regularly talking about issues for which there was no single correct answer.

To examine breadth of education, they were asked how many courses (or what share of courses) came from outside their major.

With regard to life experiences, the survey subjects were then asked questions designed to tease out whether these graduates possessed the qualities liberal arts colleges claim to provide. But again, the questions weren’t direct. So rather than say, “Are you a leader?” people were asked if they regularly had people seeking their advice outside their areas of expertise, whether they were frequently called on as mentors, whether they have been elected to positions in social, cultural, professional and political groups.

Another goal many liberal arts colleges have is to educate people who will contribute to society. So the college graduates in the sample were asked things such as whether they are volunteers and how much they volunteer, whether they vote regularly, what share of their income they donate to charity.

Detweiler then reviewed the findings, which had the audience of liberal arts supporters excited.

For example, in looking at whether people in the larger sample had leadership characteristics, he found that — depending on how many characteristics of an intimate education they reported — adults were 30 to 100 percent more likely to show leadership with the liberal arts background. The key factor appeared to be out-of-the-classroom discussions with faculty members (both on academic and nonacademic subjects).

The same faculty interaction made alumni 26 to 66 percent more likely to be people who contribute to society (volunteering, charitable giving, etc.).

Another quality the study examined was whether people were generally satisfied with their lives and viewed their professional and family lives as meaningful. This type of happiness was significantly more likely (25 percent to 35 percent), the study found, for those who reported that as undergraduates they had conversations with those who disagreed with them and had in-class discussions of different philosophical, literary and ethical perspectives.


  1. Scott says:

    Maybe this is dumb or cliche, but the fact is that what is best for people is different in each individual case. Some people will flourish under a liberal arts regime, some flounder.

    For my own part, I relished my 150+ student “weed out” courses and flourished in them. I felt like nameless, faceless feedback was more objective and fair and a good experience. When class sizes shrank again in upper level, & professors found it practical again to pry into what was rightly my business, education again became tedious and repulsive.

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