What’s The Value of a $150,000 Liberal Arts Graduate Degree?
How companies and individuals should assess the value of a Liberal Arts background.
Of the 44 million Americans who have student debt, I’m in the elite.
I’m part of a special 6% that, according to the Brookings Institute, account for a third of the $1.7 trillion that American borrowers owe back to their government.
And it is crushing.
My 6.7% interest rate doesn’t get adjusted and can’t be refinanced unless I want to move to a private lender. I pay on an Income-Based-Repayment plan at around $800 a month that essentially covers the interest. If I continue on the same plan for 25 years, I’ll get the remaining loan amount forgiven, but that amount will be taxed as income — leaving me with an income tax bomb likely in the tens of thousands.
The weight of a $150,000 degree (plus massive interest) makes you question things, a lot. Since I graduated in 2015, I’ve asked myself over and over again whether my degree was worth it. I finally stopped and took the time to analyze what my degree is doing for me today, right now. What did I gain from that insanely expensive piece of paper that’s still relevant?
More importantly, how should companies and individuals assess the value of a Liberal Arts education?
The Enjoyment of Writing
I wasn’t really taught how to write in Graduate School, but I was forced to learn. 60+ page research papers are common. Your entire grade is based on how well you can dissect research and ideas and make an argument.
I learned to enjoy writing. I didn’t immediately start a writing career after school (I went into Tech and learned data and analytics), but over the last year, I’ve started to write a blog post about once every other week here on Medium.
This year I’m hoping to double that. Had I not went to graduate school and been forced to write hundreds of pages about ideas, theories, and history, I’m not sure I’d be writing this article right now.
And writing is making a comeback of sorts. With the recent announcement by Twitter of the addition of newsletter and creator features specifically for writers, the ability to write is more relevant than ever. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s 2021 and Twitter is rolling out newsletters, in case you thought those were dead.
Will this help fill the $150k hole in my pocket? Probably not— but beyond that, writing brings me creative fulfillment that I don’t get from any other medium. I owe that to a liberal arts education.
In the 2016 film, Captain Fantastic, Viggo Mortensen’s character asks his teenage daughter what she thinks about a book. She responds “it’s interesting,” to which, the other kids yell back, “she said ‘interesting!’” You see, the highly educated children in the film were taught that “interesting is a non-word.” They weren’t allowed to make a statement about something without first developing their own thoughts and feelings around it — i.e. think critically about it.
Grammar school and in many ways my Bachelor's Degree program taught me to memorize and regurgitate information, not to question information, compare it, analyze it, and study it out in my mind. In Graduate School, your grade is largely based on how well you can do this. Making an argument about a topic to a professor who is an expert in that topic requires deep critical thinking.
Could I have acquired that ability through other mediums? Probably — and likely at a much lower cost. But in the context of my life and my circumstances, a graduate program was the best way. Prior to going to grad school, I had just given up a career at a respected digital marketing agency and had no other job prospects or connections to speak of. My choices were either to open up more opportunities through education or get a job at Gamestop. I chose education.
I credit more school for introducing me to real problems in the world that expanded my mind and altered my perspective. Most of all the ability to alter my opinion based on new data — a practice I’ve come to learn is incredibly rare.
Like many of you, my profession is completely irrelevant to my degree. In fact, only around 27% of you (as of 2013) have a profession directly related to what you studied. This is often seen as a drawback, but we have evidence that it’s not. Acquiring knowledge from a wide array of fields enhances the ability to make connections between fields to solve problems more effectively (the Book, Range, from David Epstein, is replete with examples of this). Over my years of analytics and consulting work, I’ve pulled from approaches and analytical methods from political science and international relations to help solve business challenges at the companies I’ve worked with. I’ve also been able to speak and write confidently, a skill that is often lacking in highly technical positions.
Some of the most accomplished individuals of our time became successful by merging two or more fields together in unique ways. Steve Jobs's brilliance was his vision for combining principles of design and technology to create frictionless user experiences. That perspective came from acquiring knowledge across multiple fields of study and employing diverse ways of thinking about problems.
The Value of Writing and Thinking
As has been shown, the value of my $150,000 degree comes down primarily to soft skills, ways of thinking, and perspective. Are such “fluffy” things really worth $150,000 of debt? No — but they are critical nonetheless.
A common argument in higher education is that you should only go to college for a “useful” degree, like business or STEM. Would my degree have been worth it if I had spent $150,000 on an MBA? I’d argue that my education would have been even less valuable. While an MBA program teaches you to apply models and frameworks to make money, a Liberal Arts program teaches you how to think and write. Thinking and writing are two of the highest leverage, high-value skills that a person can have. “Business” skills, on the other hand, are somewhat of a misnomer. As Venture Capitalist and Twitter Philosopher, Naval Ravikant has said, there’s no actual skill called business.
But that isn’t the point.
No person should have to be saddled with a lifetime of debt to get a liberal arts education or any other kind of education at a high-quality school. The point is that going to school to acquire critical thinking and perspective without some job or money-making guarantee shouldn't be frowned upon.
A Masters's in English, or Psychology is only looked down on because the astronomical costs of bloated universities have turned education into skill accruement. Colleges essentially turn out two types of graduates — a business or engineering monkey that looks the same as all the others — or an artist/writer/historian that nobody wants to hire.
I’m a liberal arts grad who works in a technical career. I’ve had success getting technology jobs, but have consistently had my education maligned during interviews despite having proven practical experience for the job. The combination of my diverse education and my technical experience should have been a positive — but instead, it was seen as a risk.
It doesn’t need to be this way.
Companies that hire based on how closely you resemble the hiring manager are failing to get people that will bring spectacular, novel solutions to their businesses. In the same breath, artists/poets/writers should not shy away from technical careers, even though it will be more challenging to get a job.
The world needs more artists, writers, and sociologists in prominent positions across business, science, and technology. And more engineers, scientists, and business leaders need more perspective and knowledge across art, music, and history. That can only happen if a) the college education system of America is changed to significantly reduce or eliminate the cost of a college education and b) we begin placing an equal premium on both STEM and liberal arts.
The Best Worst Decision
So what is the actual return on a $150,000 liberal arts degree? It’s simultaneously worth way more than I paid for it while at the same time shouldn’t have cost me anywhere near what I paid for it.
It was a poor financial decision, while also being critical for my growth and development as a human being. Learning how to write easily, analyze critically, and think ‘outside-in’ has changed my life for the better — and I might not have acquired those skills without a $150,000 investment. But no one should need to pay that much. And if they already did, they shouldn’t be penalized for it.
Follow me on Twitter @camwarrenm