On April 2 New York Times published an opinion piece by Bret C. Devereaux, assistant professor at North Carolina State University, titled “Colleges Must Be More Than Vocational Schools.” The piece covers ongoing efforts by university administrators and politicians across the political spectrum to defund the humanities, examines the perception that the liberal arts as a discipline is available only to a privileged few, and argues for the need for liberal arts curricula and values in all educational contexts.
The debate over the future of liberal arts education is contentious and nuanced, covering issues such as affordability, economic disparity, elitism, classism, and ideological conflict. The data is clear—liberal arts programs are being cut by both public and private institutions across the country, and an increasing number of students are seeking careers in trade schools and STEM fields, leading to low enrollment rates in many departments within the arts and humanities.
Devereaux’s argument within this debate is based on the idea that a liberal arts education produces “good” citizens who are “better prepared to lead and participate in a democratic society.” He also counters the myth that a liberal arts education is not financially viable, providing data that shows a lower unemployment rate for history majors than for economics, business, and communications majors. Art history and philosophy majors also have relatively high median earnings nationwide, with steady projected job growth.
Still, students entering higher education with their futures in mind are choosing vocational and STEM schools at increasing rates, and funding for the liberal arts is declining in response. According to an article published in Inside man, Marymount University, a private Catholic institution in Virginia, dropped nine of its major offerings, including English, art and sociology. Many schools across the country have done the same, eliminating some of the most popular liberal arts majors.
It’s not just schools that are aligned with the anti-liberal arts mentality. Politicians and community leaders are urging students to choose vocational schools over the liberal arts. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama said, “People can do a lot more, potentially, with a skilled manufacturing or trade than they could with a degree in art history.” Even key liberal political figures are advocating the pursuit of vocational education liberal education.
Despite the many advantages of the liberal arts education model, there are several undeniable pitfalls. According to The Economics Review, “vocational education is more likely to offer immediate guarantees than liberal education.” Vocational education requires less training and offers more immediate results because students are trained broadly in one specific field. In contrast, liberal arts students graduate from college as specialists in their designated field, an old model of education based on the assumption that students in higher education are preparing for graduate study.
Still, criticisms that the liberal arts system is classical are valid. Professional education is much less expensive than liberal arts education, and the admissions process is much less rigorous. In a comparison of tuition data for trade schools and colleges from Research.com, the average cost of private for-profit and public four-year colleges is about twice the average cost of private for-profit and public two-year trade schools.
Most liberal arts college applications require students to answer several essay questions and several short-answer questions in addition to the usual application requirements, such as testing and high school credentials. For many, especially those whose high school literacy and careers have been deeply affected by their economic status, applying to liberal arts programs is simply not possible.
Devereaux acknowledges this, but seems to believe that the liberal arts have since changed and become accessible to all. This is not so. For students who need money right out of school, liberal arts degrees are often not viable. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for a liberal arts major was $50,000 in 2019 compared to $61,640 for technical and trade school graduates in 2021. The return on investment for liberal arts students is significantly higher than for those attending non-liberal arts colleges, but the immediate returns of the latter may exceed those of the former for people who do not enter higher education with economic privilege.
The anti-liberal arts stance is not universal. The South China Morning Post produced an opinion piece supporting the integration of liberal arts values and curricula in Hong Kong’s STEM schools to enable students to pursue “soft skills” while conforming to Hong Kong’s STEM-focused curricula. Integrating the liberal arts into STEM, vocational, and non-liberal arts curricula is an important step in making students well-rounded, creative, unique citizens with specializations in specific fields. This idea is important for both educational models.
Ultimately, the transition of liberal arts colleges to a more accessible and less elitist model must first come with a dramatic change to the class system in the United States. This is not an educational problem, but an economic one. The conservative suggestion that inequality can be solved by eliminating liberal arts programs, thus reducing elitism, will only exacerbate class differences. Access to liberal arts curricula should not depend solely on eliminating elitism and expanding the curricula of both liberal arts and non-liberal arts schools, but should rely heavily on addressing the wealth disparity of statutory and state level. Yet it is naïve to think that the problems articulated in Devereaux’s article will simply dissipate without first addressing economic stratification in the United States.