But would you let your son major in the liberal arts?

Well, duh. I did. Kinda sorta, “health communications” is pretty much liberal arts with a healthy dose of health and fitness knowledge thrown in. Besides, it is not like it was my choice. It was his choice. In fact, attending Ferrum was his choice. Now, I did have a lot of influence and I did not have to pay for him to go there.

In fact, I am the one that encouraged him to consider Ferrum, to consider private colleges in general. As a freshling in high school, he was vocal about never attending a private college. Despite the fact I had worked in private colleges for 10 years before coming to Virginia.

Almost 20 years ago, I attended my first Higher Education Data Sharing (HEDS) Consortium meeting shortly after I joined Willamette University. One of the discussion sessions was on the future of private colleges. The presenters were bemoaning the growth of public universities since WWII and reversal of college enrollment from 75% private to 75% public. I spoke up, as I have had a tendency to do, and espoused my belief that state funding was going to continue to drop and within a few decades the “real” cost of college (net price wasn’t really a thing back then) was going to be about the same at both publics and privates.

So, this is why Ferrum won out over Longwood. There simply was not enough difference in net price for my son (and I) to feel that was really a deciding factor. Other factors were much stronger; perhaps the physical similarity of Ferrum to Willamette, and their Methodist histories.

It is a shame though that a small public college (and it really, truly is a college more than a university) like Longwood has a net price for the lowest income students that requires them to come up with $50,000 (usually through debt) to cover four years of enrollment.We can do better.

Back to the liberal arts. For some people the choice of major has about as much relevance as the choice of going to college. These people will be successful no matter what, on their own terms, whether through privilege or a drive to accomplish their own personal vision. For others, the choice of major really is a just an effective way to hold their interest through four-years of study and other activities. For still others, major is about a chosen profession.

The liberal arts can handle most of these students.

Now the uncomfortable reality is that most liberal arts graduates will not make a lot of money. (Yes, I know this. Yes, I have data; but that is for another venue and another day, very soon.)  They won’t be poor, in fact, most will be above average nationally – especially if they marry another liberal arts graduate. The problem is that this is not a problem.

The problem is one of expectations combined with an unwillingness to pay for what we value. If we truly value an educated populace we should be willing to fund that. We are fully able to do so, it is simply a matter of choice. Relatively lower earnings compared to high demand occupations should be used as justification for greater support in order to reduce the reliance on student and parent debt. Policymakers need to develop realistic expectations of what various degrees are worth in the marketplace and what are needed in what quantities. They also need to understand that meeting the needs of the marketplace is not the not the only justification for public support of college education. Education is a good thing. And as the famous college founder, Emile Faber once said, “Knowledge is good.”

Of course, I am biased. I have an art degree (painting and jewelry). My wife is a special ed teacher. My father was a professor of communications. My step-mother, a political scientist. My mother, a K-12 teacher. Two sisters – one, a degree in communications; one, a degree in English literature. A third-generation with four out of five eligible completers (the one non-completer could justifiably be dropped from the cohort) with three of the completers in liberal arts and fourth is pre-med/biology (now a medical resident).

No one is ever hurt by a good liberal education. They can be hurt by too much debt. And a lack of awareness that the credential by itself may not be enough to succeed  in the workplace.

So, yes, I would let my son, or daughter, major in the liberal arts.

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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