The Privilege of the Liberal Arts: Four Years in the Ivory Tower Comes With Opportunity Costs

A mounting sense of disappointment surrounds Emory’s 2018 commencement speaker, Michael Dubin, co-founder and CEO of Dollar Shave Club. His unconventional path, however, from obtaining a bachelor’s degree in history to becoming a successful business owner, has been touted by some as a testament to the value of a liberal arts education. While a liberal arts education from a top university can serve you well, it is imperative to note that such an education is only accessible to a select few and perpetuates a system that limits the mobility those of a lower socioeconomic class.

Liberal arts education advocates cite academic exploration as key to identifying one’s interests. While that may be true, academic exploration is an inherently privileged pursuit. The ability to take a year to study the connections between organized religion and sexuality is a luxury. There are benefits to developing skills emphasized in the liberal arts world through non-major general education requirements (GERs). But skills like communication and curiosity can be accessed without paying $60,000 in tuition.

Proponents argue financial aid and other scholarships make college accessible for anyone and everyone. But that argument perpetuates the mentality that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and further justifies the view that those who don’t or can’t are inferior and lazy. The inaccessibility of four-year institutions extends beyond tuition. Students must also account for the four-year opportunity cost of not working a full time job as a result of attending such an institution. GERs, an inherent feature of most liberal arts curriculums, make graduating in fewer than four years difficult. Students’ ability to work is limited while attending college, and though their projected incomes may be higher post-graduation than they would without a degree, such a financial risk is a barrier for some students who may need to support families back home.

Some assert that a liberal arts education is a precursor to being a socially conscious, effective citizen. Confining that knowledge to only the elites inhibits social mobility and maintains the current power structure by perpetuating stereotypes. It also portrays those who pursue other education options, such as professional training programs and two-year colleges, as unfit to partake in the political system and scapegoats the uneducated as the source of government corruption, such as the blaming of uneducated whites for President Donald J. Trump’s education, rather than actually holding those in power responsible for their actions.

Willard Dix, a former admissions officer at Amherst College (Mass.) wrote, [Liberal arts education] enables students to see beyond one perspective, encouraging them to understand others even if they don’t agree.” While that argument stands, it insinuates that empathy is fostered through a liberal arts education and is consequently an inherently elite value. As of 2015, only one-third of Americans over the age of 25 held four-year degrees. The aforementioned reasoning implies that two-thirds of the population may lack empathy, which just isn’t true. That argument works as simply another justification for subjugating those in a lower socioeconomic class as not only uneducated, but also less human.

Madison Stephens (21C) is from Little Rock, Ark.