In tough times, liberal arts colleges defend their value

They also indicate that growing debt has affected students’ optimism, especially on the question of whether the investment was worth it.

Anderson, addressing a group of college presidents in January, argued that numbers are key in combating skepticism. “No parent wants to spend tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars on college only to have their student return home and live in the basement,” he said. “We have to demonstrate that that is not what happens with our students.”

Colleges can then extend the conversation to “the outcomes of a liberal arts education that are less tangible, though not less important.”

‘What can you be?’

The less tangible was on display at St. Olaf last month during a day for high school juniors. Families feasted on mini-bagels, fruit and yogurt, explored stone-clad buildings and attended sessions on studying abroad, the fine arts and the residential experience.

For a session on “Why the Liberal Arts?” juniors, flanked by their parents, filled the seats and, when there were none left, sat on the stage.

Anne Groton, a classics professor, commanded the room with her theatrical delivery. “I think people ask the wrong question,” she pronounced. “People always say, ‘What can you do with a major from St. Olaf?’ The question should be, ‘What can you be with a major from St. Olaf?'”

At 16, Jack is the oldest child in the Beahler family, “so this is all new to us,” Sara Beahler said after the session.

She and her husband, Blake, attended Iowa State University and began their careers with jobs related to their majors — industrial engineering and early childhood education, respectively — but have since experienced “reinventions.” They now own a bookstore in Sheldon, Iowa.

“Most likely, throughout your life you’re going to do something completely different than what you studied,” Blake Beahler said, “and you need an education that is general enough that you can apply it to those different areas.”

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