The Freshman Class: The Value of a BA

Thursday, September 23, 2010

In the fourth installment of The Freshman Class, Tamar Lewin, a reporter for the New York Times covering higher education, talks about her recent article and the value of a BA in 2010.

Listeners: Tell us how valuable you think a liberal arts degree is in 2010.


Tamar Lewin

Comments [37]

Treadmill Traci

I was the first person in my family to get my BS in Mechanical Engineering. I finished owoing about 30K in loans... I have been working for 6 years and have most of it paid off. It was well worth it to me!

Mar. 07 2011 03:42 PM
Karsha from Texas

I graduated my BA in Liberal Arts last year, and I have had problems finding work, but that is just because of the fields I applied for. My back ground is in Human Resources because I'm a veteran. I absolutely enjoyed my time pursing this degree. I have an AA in Liberal Arts and am about to start my Masters in yet another Liberal Arts program; this time I'm focusing on Human Resources Management. It took me 6 months after I graduated to find work, but I found work in my field where my BA and experience gave me an edge over other candidates. And I have only 7,000 worth of debt, and this masters will not cost me a dime! I say to each his own, and yes it can be hard to find work, but that isn't a reason to disregard this particular degree as a whole. From reports that I have read there are many people graduating with various degrees that have not been able to find employment. Being in HR, it is not always because of the type of degree that causes unemployability--as a whole more people are going back to school and the trend is now everyone has a Bachelor's degree, so guess what? Now you need a master's degree. Besides, no matter what field anyone gets a degree in, it is not the field they will stay in for their entire working lives. I know a lady with a JD working as a admissions counselor, another working as an HR Manager. So it all depends...knowledge and skills acquired are always transferrable.

Jan. 04 2011 05:48 PM

what about the jews?

Sep. 23 2010 10:19 PM
Accredited College of Liberal Arts from

A liberal arts education can prepare individuals for a variety of fields because it trains individuals how to think and how to problem solve.

Sep. 23 2010 01:27 PM
John Q

Valid Points Mr. Bad.

The problem with studies like these are that they are way too broad in scope yet they attempt to boil things down to one simple answer. Obviously the people that do these studies want to "Juke the Numbers" in order to make a Liberal Arts Bachelor Degree look greater than it really is.

What type of liberal arts degree? What colleges are you talking about? Are you comparing Liberal Arts degrees from Yale and Harvard with G.E.D.'s from a high school in Newark or Jersey City? What's the cost of the degree? What's your financial status, etc...

My brother-in-law pays close to $50,000 a year for room & board for my niece at St. John's. That's basically like buying a new Mercedes Benz every year and then driving it and leaving it in Queens.

I went to a New Jersey state college in the late 80's-early 90's and most of my class-mates had great difficulty getting jobs with their Liberal Arts Degrees and ended up working in different fields often requiring no college degree. One guy became a bartender, another one worked at Home Depot, another one opened a Pretzel Shop, Another worked as a ski lift operator and then sold Concrete supplies, another one became a camera man, another worked for an insurance company.

I worked as a Substitute Teacher with my history degree and was never hired for a permanent position. I was told by many Principals that my degree was essentially "A Dime a Dozen" and often they would show me a stack of hundreds of resumes from other history majors.

I ended up selling Furniture because of the benefits and it paid much more than I was making working at a school.

Sep. 23 2010 12:08 PM
Mike from Park Slope

@ Steve from Brooklyn... Liberal Arts include the Sciences. The term comes from the medieval origins of the university that had 7 liberal arts:
3 from the Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic), and 4 from the Quadrivium (including Mathematics). From here medieval students could specialize in medicine, law, or philosophy (theology), hence the MD, JD, and PHD as terminal degrees. The idea that SCIENCE is apposed to liberal ARTS is ridiculous and utterly uninformed. A mistake that could only be made by someone who has no idea what the liberal arts are and likely didn't ever get a worthwhile degree in them.

Sep. 23 2010 11:27 AM

A broad education, literature, science,sociology,history,art history gives a person the background necessary to understand, analyze and make decisions about important life issues. It gives the possibility of being able to reason& THINK. I got my BA at 42 & was miserable in the office world, got my MA in my 50's and have happily taught adults since. just retired but work pt now. To me learning is everything!!

Sep. 23 2010 11:26 AM

mr bad
thanks for the info

Sep. 23 2010 11:21 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC


LOL, do you even read the comments before commenting yourself?I didn't say college was a waste of money and time, I said getting a Liberal Arts degree was. In my personal experience a Liberal Arts degree, including Communications, Film Studies, English, Comp Lit., Philosophy, etc will get you into Law School (good luck!) or a temp job or retail. Sorry, those are the facts unless you've gone to a top tier school. I've worked PT ax a recruiter for 5 years and it's gotten to the point that when I see a Degree in Liberal Arts or some such nonsense on a CV from a school like Touro or even a half way decent state school I can predict with almost 100% certainty that the candidate is borderline worthless as an employee. Colleges and universities take ANYONE now, D average or GED, 800 combined SAT, have you got $ well than come one in! You think hiring managers don't know this?

Sep. 23 2010 11:15 AM

@NYCarl: Engineers are not well-rounded (believe me, I'm married to one).

Sep. 23 2010 11:08 AM
Peter Weston

A strong liberal arts education sharpens one's critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills which are essential for today's market place. But I don't see why people continue to measure the value of a college education in terms of money, i.e., how much you are going to earn in the future. Salary is not the only criterion by which to measure the value of an education. Being a well informed,
analytical, articulate, involved citizen who understands the human condition, appreciates life, etc. is an immeasurable benefit to all of society.

Sep. 23 2010 11:07 AM

The deemphasis on blue-collar work has been happening in this city at least for about 35 years, since the late 70s when the city began closing down vocational schools. But one of the problems with the separation between vocational and academic training is just that--the separation. Why *shouldn't* "vocational" students also get a depth and breadth of humanities classes? Why *shouldn't* "academic" students learn how to work with their hands? It speaks to a growing gap between the valuation of these types of work. While post-WWII vocational work--plumbers, carpenters, etc.--was valued, over time there's been a hierarchy (and therefore a stigmatization) in types of work; somehow financial so-called services--which seems to be the ability to move paper around in abstract ways to generate profits for a few, and not primarily the shareholders--vaulted to the pinnacle, while learning how to fix a car or a toilet sank to joke status. Personally, when my tub's overflowing, the hedge fund manager can't generate enough paper to stop it up.

Sep. 23 2010 11:05 AM
Elvira from NYC

I have to disagree with the value of a liberal arts degree. I have two in addition to an MA - and so do most of my friends - some of whom also have two MAs. Most of us have graduated with excellent GPAs, speak several languages, and none of us have ever managed to get the jobs we originally had wished to do. It seems in this country the degree is irrelevant and it is all about who you know or in what family you were born

Sep. 23 2010 11:04 AM
carla from Manhattan

Tamara made a point at the end of your segment that betrays her level of privileged. Why would someone pay a quarter of a million dollars to study Nietzsche when they could become a plumber and get paid $150-200K? Perhaps because plumbing is back breaking work that most people cannot sustain throughout a lifetime. My father was a plumber when I was growing up, and if he had continued doing that work I am certain he could not have lifted and hauled heavy boilers and snaked his way through small holes in walls to make complicated repairs as a man now in his 60s.

Sep. 23 2010 11:04 AM
eastvillage from Union Sq. NYC

I agree with many of the above comments. There simply are not many jobs out there and a stand alone liberal arts degree will get you almost no where. Corporate capitalism is the new soft fascism that Americans have not yet realized. What does fascism totally dislike? Liberally educated, liberally motivated, thought human beings.

Sep. 23 2010 11:03 AM
Monica from NYC

I am a strong believer that liberal art education would benefit many. In general people are rather ignorant of history, philosophy, literature, which tends to skew their perception of reality (see the Tea Party). However a liberal art education is really not compatible with majors like biology or chemistry (for biology, college students have to take several 4 yrs of chemistry, 1 of math and 1 of physics and biology classes usually have long labs in the afternoon) and these majors are essential if one wants to purse a scientific research career.

Sep. 23 2010 11:01 AM

You caller does not understand confounding factors and differences between causation and correlation. Going to college does not cause you not to have low birth-weight babies, obviously.

Please see Louis Menand's "The Marketplace of Ideas" for more informed and better researched discussions of undergraduate education and its social, cultural, and intellectual roles (with more historical grounding). BL Show staff: please step up your preparation and research game; these segments are becoming reductive and sophomoric.

Sep. 23 2010 11:00 AM

mr bad
no one ever asked me for my library card at a job interview.

Sep. 23 2010 11:00 AM

my son can go to college for free because i work at a university. he refuses to apply. he is not an idiot. just 16. it kills me.

Sep. 23 2010 11:00 AM
Steve from Brooklyn

So much is made of the broad Liberal Arts education. I'm a medical science researcher who studied Biology as an undergrad. I see colleagues with Engineering degrees applying a broad skill set in our work and I wish I had a stronger quantitative background. Perhaps a broad technology and Engineering degree rather than the highly specialized mechanical engineering, civil etc. would be useful? What about a Liberal Science degree?

Sep. 23 2010 11:00 AM
David A from Brooklyn

The value depends on what the student does. If, regardless of her chosen major, she makes sure to take a variety of different courses, including at least one post-calculus math course, a lab science course, a serious course in film/art history/music theory, and several writing courses in different disciplines, and the intense study of a foreign language, the value is inestimable. The trick is to learn and do the stuff in college that you'll find very difficult to learn on your own. You can lose your keys, your job, your marriage, your house, your health, your mind but you can't lose your degree. And if you don't lose your mind, you get to keep your education too.

Sep. 23 2010 11:00 AM
Howard from NJ

My son is a senior applying for college now.

He wants to Biological SCIENCE. Is there a penalty for getting a BA from a liberal ARTS school vs BS (which seem hard to find)? Isn't a LA school just an expensive preparatin for grad school?

Sep. 23 2010 10:59 AM

Robots will take over blue collar work in the future.

Sep. 23 2010 10:59 AM
Tim McCorry

I believe in the liberal arts approach. I "knew" at age 8 that I wanted to be a Navy pilot so I worked hard and got an appointment to the US Naval Academy. I am now an architect and composer after realizing I didn't belong there.
On the other hand, a dear friend decided to put her 7 year old daughter in a girls only school for leadership, math and science. She is now on a full scholarship for astrophysics at Princeton and loving it! Every kid is different.

Sep. 23 2010 10:59 AM
Steve from Brooklyn

So much is made of the broad Liberal Arts education. I'm a medical science researcher who studied Biology as an undergrad. I see colleagues with Engineering degrees applying a broad skill set in our work and I wish I had a stronger quantitative background. Perhaps a broad technology and Engineering degree rather than the highly specialized mechanical engineering, civil etc. would be useful? What about a Liberal Science degree?

Sep. 23 2010 10:59 AM
Darius from bklyn

Who gets a pension anymore?

Sep. 23 2010 10:57 AM
IC from New York

I'm all for a BA in Liberal Arts, esp. for my 16 yr. old. All too often the young generation are lacking in general knowledge and education, so obvious on a day to day high school class. 20 yr. olds all too often think they are experts and work as consultants when they lack complete general knowledge to just think. Bravo for those that go after a broad education to become an educated human being. The world would definitely be a better place!

Sep. 23 2010 10:57 AM
NYCarl from East Village

If "critical thinking" is the goal of a undergrad degree, get an ENGINEERING degree! There is no comparison between the ability to apply critical thinking and analysis.

Engineers, do take non-technical classes. So this "not well rounded" argument is BS.

Sep. 23 2010 10:56 AM
M. L. from Croton-on-Hudson, NY

My college, at least when I was there, prided itself on its strong liberal arts curriculum. All undergraduates, no matter what they majored in, were expected to learn how to think critically and write well. A lot of my classmates ended up going into consulting because of that flexibility. They could analyze different situations and effectively report on their findings. Granted I will never make as much as my brother, who earned an electrical engineering degree. I also think the high price tag of an education from a private college is indefensible.

Sep. 23 2010 10:56 AM
Mike from Park Slope

The push to have everyone get degrees in "practical" majors is utter garbage. Business is no better than every other BA and in many ways worse. Undergrad is about learning creative thinking, critical writing, analytical skills, and personal growth. All sorts of disciplines and sub-fields provide this but Business or Econ ends up just blinding students to these other skills as they focus on a one-dimensional test-taking-based educational miasma.

Sep. 23 2010 10:55 AM
Dave from Brooklyn

The value of a B.A. can only be measured in how you perceive what you can do with it. As somebody with a B.A. in English and writing, I knew that even with a hope to go into the field of journalism, I also knew it would be important to find a backup for rainy days. I'm working in journalism now, but I still have options, and a lot of them.

It's just unfortunate that upon graduating in 2009, I still believe the degree is valuable, but a lack of job preparation classes offered by my school (Ithaca College) renders me useless.

Sep. 23 2010 10:55 AM
The Truth from Becky

I am in investment banking - trust me sweetie you are NOT going to just "jump into" the business!

Sep. 23 2010 10:54 AM
Sophia from New York

I have a Bachelor's and a JD along with more than $100,000 in student loans. I absolutely would not do it again. It's like I'm paying for a house that I don't want to live in any longer. I will never pay the loans off and can't discharge them in bankruptcy. My monthly loan payment is over $1000.

Sep. 23 2010 10:53 AM
Masters Candidate from New York

I'm still owe 20K for my bachelors 10 years later. Whats the value in a non-business, non-law, non-medicine masters degree? Is it really worth the plunge?

Sep. 23 2010 10:53 AM

One assumption is the people who do go to college are the same socioeconomic group as the people who didn't go to college.

If wealthy people can afford to go to college, and poor people can't, then college graduates will earn more money even if the degree had nothing to do with it.

Sep. 23 2010 10:50 AM

is there any debate here? is this news??

Sep. 23 2010 10:43 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

The value of a liberal arts education is inestimable but the cost is utterly indefensible and the long term earning advantage negligible. All you need in order to have a superior Liberal Arts education is a library card and some intellectual curiosity, if you're a total bonehead maybe you should request a syllabus from a local community college but otherwise you could do worse than starting with the ancients and just moving ahead in chronological order. Better to actually learn something marketable in college and spend your free time becoming a refined and "cultured" person.

Sep. 23 2010 10:17 AM

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