NPR Examines the Value of a Liberal Arts Education in Today's Economy

May 1, 2012

The value of the private, liberal arts college given the current economic realities has been a much-discussed topic of late. National Public Radio (NPR) reporter Tovia Smith visited Wellesley and other leading schools last week to explore the challenges facing colleges today, and to see first-hand the value of the liberal arts education in today’s world.

While at Wellesley, Smith met with President H. Kim Bottomly, Provost and Dean of the College Andrew Shennan, and Joanne Murray, director of Wellesley’s Center for Work and Service; visited two classes—Advanced Macroeconomics and The Rise of the Novel; and spoke with several students. The story aired nationally on NPR’s Morning Edition, Tuesday, May 1.

President Bottomly and Provost Shennan spoke of how a strong liberal arts education, which sharpens critical thinking and cultivates curiosity, creativity, and a lifelong love of learning, prepares students to adapt to whatever the future holds. The data suggests that others also see a liberal arts education as training for adapting to any job in a rapidly changing environment. According to the Centers for Work & Service:

  • Even in a tough economy, more than 80 companies are recruiting on our campus;
  • More than half of Wellesley’s job-seeking seniors report having job offers by graduation—and the number of graduates employed increases significantly within one year of graduation;
  • 70 percent of Wellesley undergraduates and alumnae who applied for medical school in 2011 were accepted—the national acceptance rate is 46 percent;
  • Within 10 years of graduation, 85 percent of Wellesley graduates will get an additional or advanced degree;
  • And, a testament to the great range of fields that seek out liberal arts-educated graduates, top employers of 2011 Wellesley graduates include Google, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, McKinsey, Teach for America, J.P. Morgan Chase, and the Brookings Institution.

Wellesley graduates demonstrate their mastery across a broad spectrum of fields. Their ability to hear and synthesize distinct and diverse viewpoints has readied them to become leaders with the ability to collaborate, create consensus, and “get things done.”

Students' Perspective

Perhaps there’s no better testament to the singularly empowering undergraduate experience than words from the students themselves.

Alexandria Icenhower ’12, Erica Saldivar ’12, and Maria Jun ’14 were interviewed for the NPR story, each sharing their take on the value of their Wellesley experience.

Icenhower, a political science major who hopes to work in public relations, shared that an elective art history class played an important role in her considering a communications career. As a student supported by financial aid, Icenhower also discussed the opportunities she was able to participate in without having to worry about amassing great debt, including the fully funded Wellesley In Washington internship program, a semester abroad in Italy, and this June, the Women in Public Service Project Summer Institute. Wellesley’s generous financial aid policy ensures that no student is packaged with more than $12,875 in debt—total for all four years. Icenhower will graduate with roughly $5,000 in debt.

Saldivar, a Spanish and economics major, talked about her experiences interning at Finca Perú, a Microfinance NGO in rural Peru one summer, and the next summer with the United Nations Development Program in Costa Rica. “I’ve learned a lot at Wellesley, but the internships I've had have had a defining role in the courses of action I've chosen now and in further defining my calling,” Saldivar said. She is a 2012 Teach for America Greater Philadelphia corps member and will be completing a master’s in education at The University of Pennsylvania.

Jun, a second-year student who has been working with Professor Dora Carrico-Moniz to develop a promising anti-cancer agent, spoke about the value of small classes and of being able to work with professors starting very early in her career. Like many Wellesley students, Jun has been able to pursue opportunities that might not have been available to her at larger research universities. She reflected on conversations she’s had with friends who are studying in the sciences at other schools and who have yet to meet the professors that head their labs. 

With a liberal arts foundation that has remained strong for more than one hundred years, there’s no question that Wellesley women will continue to make a difference in the world. But must the College adapt to the changing world? According to President Bottomly, Wellesley looks at this question as: “How can we continue to give women the very best education to meet the challenges of our complex future? We are always asking this of ourselves and constantly innovating.”

Speaking with NPR, Bottomly affirmed her belief in the power of a liberal arts education to address global challenges. “Complex modern problems require not just leadership, but the ability to collaborate and navigate through multiple interests and viewpoints. There is no better foundation than a Wellesley education for integrating knowledge across disciplines without losing sight of the human dimension."