In tough times, liberal arts colleges defend their value

Soon, it will get a new name: the Center for Vocation and Career. If St. Olaf once eschewed the word, now it’s shouting it from the hilltop.

Like other schools, St. Olaf has touted alums with cool jobs in its publications and released an employment figure or two. But soon, a prospective student will be able to browse a database: What share of grads with English degrees have jobs? What are they earning?

In May, the college will begin publishing employment and salary data for the class of 2011, building on it with every class. A spokeswoman for the Council of Independent Colleges said its president and researcher had never heard of a nonprofit, private college making such data public.

Anderson knows the risks: “First, people might look at your data and not be impressed. The other risk, though, is that you have no data, and you’re this black box where people dump $50,000 a year for four years.

“If I could pick one of those two risks, I’m going to take the first one.”

St. Olaf’s price tag for the 2012-13 year is $48,650 for tuition, room, and board, though most students will pay less than that after subtracting scholarships.

Adding to the equation

Arguments about value are fueled by studies with competing messages. New reports by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce show that graduates with “soft” majors in areas like fine arts are more likely to be unemployed and make less money.

But a survey by the Social Science Research Council, out in January, demonstrates that recent grads who scored well on liberal arts skills like reasoning and writing are doing better financially than those with lower scores.

Colleges are commissioning their own studies. A new survey partly sponsored by the Minnesota Private College Council shows that about 53 percent of alumni of the group’s 17 schools reported being “completely satisfied” with the quality of their education, compared with 32 percent of those surveyed from six Midwest public flagship universities. They also beat the public schools on questions about “sense of community,” courses taught by professors and four-year graduation.

That report mirrors a national one released in November by the Annapolis Group, which represents 130 private liberal-arts colleges.

Both surveys show that engagement matters — and that private college students are more likely to be engaged, said James Day, of Hardwick-Day, which conducted the national and Minnesota surveys.