What Makes a University Education Worthwhile?

Keynote Address by Amy Gutmann

Spencer Foundation Conference - Achieving the Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice - October 5, 2011

"A mind is a precious thing to waste," wrote Bill Gross, co-founder of the Pacific Investment Management Company, "so why are millions of America's students wasting theirs by going to college?"[1] In 2010, co-founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, announced that he would pay $100,000 each to 20 young people as an incentive for them to drop out of college and start a tech-based business. In May 2011, he chose 22 men and two women to receive this skip-school scholarship.[2]

What gives the "skip-school scholarship" its shock value is the prevailing view that a university education is a valuable ticket to success. But instead of taking the worth of a university education for granted, many people are now prominently asking the value-added question: Do universities provide private and public benefits commensurate with their private and public costs?[3]

The most common way of answering this question is to tally up the added income benefits of a university education to its graduates, subtract its added costs, and see whether the benefits exceed the costs. Some economists have done this quite well. The dominant answer is that a college education has paid off for most graduates to date, and can be expected to do so moving forward.[4]

What I want to convey in this essay, above all else, is that we cannot adequately answer the value-added question without first answering the more fundamental question about mission: What should universities aim to achieve for individuals and society?

It is reassuring to those who believe in the worth of a university education—and all the more so in a high-unemployment, low-growth economy—to show that the average person with a college education earns a lot more over her lifetime than the average high school graduate, even after subtracting the cost of college. But it should not be too reassuring, because the economic payback to university graduates is not the only—or even the primary—aim of a university education.

To know whether a university education is worthwhile, we need to identify and defend the mission of a university education. Call this the mission question: What should universities aim to achieve for individuals and society? In this essay, I begin to answer the mission question for the sector of higher education I know best, selective colleges and universities. I do so by asking: What is our ethical mission with regard to educating undergraduates?

I defend three fundamental aims of an undergraduate education in the 21st century.

The first aim speaks to who is educated and calls for broader access to higher education based on talent and hard work, rather than income and wealth: Opportunity, for short.

The second aim speaks to the core intellectual aim of a university education, creative understanding, which I will argue calls for a greater integration of knowledge not only within the liberal arts and sciences but also between the liberal arts and professional education: Creative Understanding, for short.

The third aim is an important sequel to the successful integration of knowledge, enabling and encouraging university graduates to contribute to society on the basis of their creative understanding: Contribution, for short.

Although the challenges of increasing opportunity, creative understanding, and contribution are not new, they take on a renewed urgency in today's climate. Jobs are scarce. The United States is perceived to be declining in global competitiveness, and part of the problem is insufficient progress in education, starting with pre-school and K-12 education.

Anyone who craves a simple or single pathway to educational and economic success will be disappointed. ("There is an easy solution to every human problem," H. L. Mencken quipped, "neat, plausible, and wrong."[5]) There are many external obstacles to educational and economic opportunity in the United States today—including poverty, broken families, and cutbacks in public support—which warrant everyone's attention. But taking to heart the ethical injunction "physician heal thyself," I focus here on what universities themselves can do to better realize their primary aims.

Starting with the first: What can universities do to help increase educational opportunity? Ironically, if Gross and Thiel are correct in assuming that a university education is generally a waste of time and money, then increasing access to a university education also would be a waste of time and money. But the best available evidence indicates that they are mistaken. According to a recent Brookings Institution study, college is, "expensive, but a smart choice."[6] I would add: for those who have the choice and everyone should be afforded the choice. "Almost 90% of young college graduates were employed in 2010, compared with only 64% of their peers who did not attend college… [C]ollege graduates are making on average almost double the annual earnings of those with only a high school diploma. And this advantage is likely to stick with them over a lifetime of work."[7] Moreover, "the investment in college has a rate of return of a whopping 15.2% a year on the $102,000 investment for those who earn the average salary for college graduates."[8]

The most relevant (and indisputable) economic fact is that, even in the depths of the Great Recession, the unemployment rate of college graduates was less than half that of high school graduates, and never exceeded 5.1%.[9] The more affordable that universities make their education to qualified young people from low- and middle-income families, the more we can contribute to both educational and economic opportunity.[10]

But this does not mean that the benefits of a college education accrue only—or even overwhelmingly—from increased economic opportunity. The second core intellectual aim of a university education highlights the benefits to college graduates of the lifelong satisfactions of creative understanding.

For low- and middle-income students, gainful employment itself is likely to be the most basic economic advantage of a college degree because the benefits of creative understanding are far harder to enjoy without basic economic security, and low- and middle-income students do not have a family nest egg of savings to draw upon in hard economic times. This observation does not require that the economic benefits of a university education be considered paramount among all the benefits of higher education. It does follow that—other things being equal—selective universities provide even greater value-added in opportunity to low- and middle-income students. While universities cannot do everything—our core competency limits our ability to engage in compensatory education—the available data show that we can provide greater access to qualified students from low- and middle-income families than we have in the past.

My concern for increasing access began with a focus on recruiting qualified students from the lowest income groups.[11] Learning more led me to the conclusion that increasing access for middle-income students should also be a high priority.[12] I began by asking: What proportion of students on a set of selective university campuses (that included Penn) come from the top 20 percent of American families as measured by income? The answer (as of 2003) was 57 percent.

Since selective colleges and universities should admit only students who can succeed once admitted, we also need to ask: what percent of all students who are well qualified come from the wealthiest 20 percent? 36 percent of all highly qualified seniors (with high grades and combined SATs over 1200) come from the top 20 percent while 57 percent of selective university students come from this group. The wealthiest 20 percent of American families are overrepresented on our campuses by a margin of 21 percent. 

All the other income groups are under-represented. Students from the lowest 40 percent of income distribution, whose families earn under about $41,000, are underrepresented by 4.3 percent. The middle 20 percent, who come from families earning $41,000 to $61,000, are underrepresented by 8.4 percent. Students from the second highest income group, whose families earn between $62,000 and $94,000, are also under-represented by 8.4 percent.

We need more than these numbers to make the case for increasing access. We also need narratives that highlight what is lost when a campus has few students from middle- and low-income families. The low- and middle-income students at Penn whose peers are most underrepresented include:

A young man from Illinois described by his advisor as the "ideal liberal arts student," with interests ranging from physics to international politics to literature to foreign languages. He is also a talented bass clarinetist. He has four siblings, including one with Down syndrome, and was raised by a single mother whose income is limited to Social Security and nominal child support. He required a cash advance from Penn to buy his plane ticket to move to campus.

A young woman from Connecticut who aspires to become an industrial-organizational psychologist and who volunteers with an AIDS organization and was an active participant in her school's Black Student League. Her mother recently lost her job of 25 years and is fighting foreclosure on their home.

A young man from South Dakota who plans to study psychology. His mother is a Head Start teacher on a Native American reservation. His advisor wrote that he had difficulty participating in high school activities because state budget cuts required parents to "contribute" to extracurricular programs and his mother had no income to spare for these pursuits.

A young woman from Pennsylvania who wants to study neuroscience and behavioral psychology and has a growing interest in environmental studies and "green" issues. An active fundraiser for community organizations, she has three siblings, including another in college, and her parents work as a supermarket cashier and a factory worker.

Increasing access to our universities for middle- and low-income students is both an especially worthy, and increasingly daunting, challenge in the wake of the Great Recession. Before the recession, taking financial aid into account, middle- and low-income families were spending between 25 percent and 55 percent of their annual income to cover the expense of a public four-year college education.[13] That burden has skyrocketed over the past three years, especially for middle-income students who are ineligible for Pell grants and who attend public universities whose public funding has been slashed.

A student from a typical middle-income family today will pay less to attend Penn than many flagship public universities. Yet private universities also have experienced a big financial squeeze. Only by making financial aid one of their highest priorities and successfully raising many millions of dollars from generous donors can most private institutions afford to admit students on a need-blind basis and provide financial aid that meets full need . This may be the reason why only about one percent of America's 4,000 colleges and universities are committed to need-blind admissions and to meeting the full financial need of their undergraduate students. An even smaller group of universities are committed not only to meeting the full financial need of all students who are admitted on a need-blind basis but also to providing financial aid exclusively on the basis of need. (They thereby maximize the use of scarce aid dollars for students with demonstrated financial need.)

In order to maximize its ability to increase opportunity through the Great Recession, Penn lowered its costs to all students from families with demonstrated financial need. From 2004 to 2012, the average price of a Penn education for all students with demonstrated financial need has decreased. Penn also instituted an all-grant/no-loan policy, substituting cash grants for loans for all undergraduates eligible for financial aid. This policy enables middle- and low-income students to graduate debt-free, and opens up a world of career possibilities to graduates who otherwise would feel far greater pressure to pick the highest paying rather than the most satisfying and worthy careers.[14]

Financial aid is not the only obstacle to increasing opportunity.  Many middle- and low-income students perceive many selective private universities as not only unaffordable but also unwelcoming. Outreach campaigns to underrepresented students, families, and secondary schools are essential to shift these misconceptions. In addition to visiting many schools that are not traditional "feeders" to Penn, we translated our admissions and financial aid materials into Spanish for non-English speaking parents of Latino students. We teamed up with the Posse program in Miami-Dade County, and with the Questbridge program, two highly effective non-profit organizations whose primary mission is to prepare low- and middle-income students—often minorities and the first in their families to attend college—for success at selective universities.

Although much more work remains, Penn has significantly increased the proportion of first-generation, low- and middle-income, and underrepresented minority students on our campus. After they arrive, many campus-wide initiatives enable these students to feel more at home and to succeed. Graduation rates are all above 90 percent, and the Latino rate is even higher than Penn's overall average.

The positive impact of increasing opportunity extends beyond the low- and middle-income students who are admitted. Increased socio-economic and racial diversity enriches the educational experience for everyone on a campus by promoting greater appreciation for life experiences and perspectives that differ from those that prevail among the most privileged.

This observation speaks to the second ethical aim of a university education: cultivating creative understanding. Students and their parents are understandably concerned about their immediate job prospects. Universities certainly should want to help them qualify for gainful employment. But we need to do more for our students than simply prepare them for a job or career. The primary goal of universities is to educate students to creatively and constructively understand their world. Creative understanding, in turn, is a prerequisite to the third aim of an undergraduate education: graduating students who can act in a well-informed way to benefit society.

Most universities today embrace the idea of interdisciplinary learning in order to provide students with a more comprehensive understanding of the world beyond what any single discipline can provide. Students are typically required to have in-depth knowledge of a major, and to distribute their elective courses across the humanities, social sciences, and sciences (or in some cases, core courses) to broaden their understanding. Increasingly, students are offered interdisciplinary majors that help them integrate knowledge across the traditional liberal arts and sciences disciplines ("liberal arts," for short). This integration among the liberal arts disciplines is a welcome development from the perspective of cultivating students' capacity to understand and creatively respond to complex social problems. Whether the issue is health care or human rights, unemployment or immigration, educational attainment or economic inequality, it cannot be comprehended let alone effectively addressed by the tools of only one academic discipline, no matter how masterful its methods or powerful its paradigms.

Consider, for example, the issue of climate change in a world that is both more interconnected and more populous than ever before. To be prepared to make a positive difference in this world, students must understand not only the science of sustainable design and development, but also the economic, political, and other issues in play. The key to solving every complex problem—climate change being one among many—will require connecting knowledge across multiple areas of expertise to both broaden and deepen creative understanding.

Nothing here suggests that the integration of knowledge should stop at the traditional boundaries of the liberal arts disciplines, especially since these boundaries have shifted – slowly but continually – over time. In my own field of political philosophy, for example, a scholarly approach centered on intellectual history ceded significant ground in the 1970s to critical analyses of contemporary public affairs, which was a paradigm common to many earlier generations of political philosophers. Were the liberal arts motivated solely by the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and not any concern for worldly relevance, then it would be hard to make sense of such shifts. In the case of this important shift in political philosophy, scholars thought it valuable, in the face of ongoing injustice, to revive a tradition of ethical understanding and criticism of society. The ability of disciplines to change over time in response to such insight is critical to the educational importance of the liberal arts.

A liberal arts education is the broadest kind of undergraduate education the modern world has known, and its breadth is an integral part of its power in generating creative understanding. But it is a mistake—judged by the ideal of intellectual creativity—to accept the conventional boundaries of a liberal arts education as fixed, rather than as a humanly alterable product of particular historical conditions. These conditions in the United States gave rise to a starker separation between the liberal arts and professional education than is intellectually ideal. To cultivate creative understanding about climate change, for example, chemical engineering—which is not a traditional liberal arts discipline nor even conventionally considered part of the liberal arts (engineering is typically classified as "professional or pre-professional education")—is just as important as economics or political science.

Today, the broad area of professional ethics holds out enormous potential for intellectually enriching the liberal arts. This potential is well illustrated in the area of medical ethics and public policy. In my own scholarly career and more recently as chair of President Obama's Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues ("Bioethics Commission"), I have been involved in considering many challenging issues surrounding the ethics of health care and human subjects research, almost none of which were part of a traditional liberal arts curriculum or education. How is health care most equitably distributed? What constitutes a conflict of interest for medical professionals? Why is it so ethically challenging to conduct human experiments, and how can they be justifiably conducted at all? These and a host of other intellectually challenging issues in bioethics will become even more salient as the science of medicine advances, the costs of health care potentially skyrocket, and the world grows more populous and interconnected.

If highly qualified scholars can be recruited to teach bioethics to undergraduates, the liberal arts curriculum would be greatly enriched. The availability of excellent scholarship coupled with the importance of teaching the subject matter at the undergraduate level has never been greater. One of the recommendations made by the Bioethics Commission in its recent report on the ethics of human subjects research is that the medical ethics be taught at the undergraduate level.[15] ,[16]

Any liberal arts curriculum would be strengthened by challenging students to understand not only what was specifically wrong in historic examples of unethical medical or research conduct, but also—and as important—by enabling students to consider, prospectively, how a society can best protect against serious harms and unethical practices in the increasingly large and consequential field of human subjects research. Educated people will only be able to grapple with such difficult questions, essential to holding professionals publicly accountable, if the subject is rigorously taught, and not just in professional schools. 

Medical ethics is just one example of an important and complex subject that should not be missing from a liberal arts curriculum. Recognizing the rarity of courses on professional ethics in undergraduate liberal arts curricula should propel educators with a passion for the liberal arts to welcome such subjects into the curriculum and to ensure that intellectually and practically significant subjects, such as ethics of the professions, not remain the primary—let alone the exclusive—province of professional education.

The problem with the strict separation between the liberal arts and subjects—such as professional ethics—that are directly related to professional practice stems not from the fact that many liberal arts undergraduates plan to become professionals, but rather from the fact that all lives and societies will be profoundly shaped by the actions, attitudes, ethos, and ethics of the professions of law, medicine, nursing, business, engineering, and education. Despite this, few undergraduates are taught to think deeply and systematically about the social roles and responsibilities of the professions and professionals. Just as teaching about politics helps to prepare students for thinking creatively about the role of politics in their lives and the life of their societies, and how best to hold politicians accountable to serving the public, so too teaching about the ethics, history, politics, and sociology of the professions would help to prepare students for thinking creatively about the role of the professions in society and how best to hold professionals publicly accountable.

A liberal arts degree is a prerequisite to professional education, and most liberal arts universities and their faculties stand firmly on the proposition that the liberal arts should inform the professions. Why, then, are liberal arts curricula not replete with courses that teach students to think carefully, critically, and creatively about the roles and responsibilities of professionals and the professions? Perhaps we are assuming that students will make these connections for themselves or that it will suffice if professional schools do so later. Neither of these assumptions can be sustained.

First, it is wildly unrealistic to assume that students themselves will translate ethics as typically taught in a philosophy curriculum into the role and responsibility of the medical, business, and legal professions. The connections are sufficiently complex to support large fields of scholarly study. Consider the complexity of the institutional roles and responsibilities of professionals, and how these roles profoundly affect the ethics of the legal, medical, and business professions. Many lawyers, for example, are part of an adversarial system of justice; many doctors are part of a system where they financially benefit from procedures the costs of which are paid indirectly but not directly by their patients; and many businesspeople operate in what is commonly called a free market where external interferences are (rightly or wrongly) presumed, prima facie, to be suspect. These and many other contextual considerations profoundly complicate the practical ethics of law, medicine, and business.

To make matters more interesting, in medicine for example, researchers conduct experiments that are designed to serve the public good but do not necessarily directly promote the health or well-being of their individual human subjects. This is just one among many fundamental facts that must be considered on an intellectual journey to understand the ethics of powerful professions. It would be rash to assume that students simply will take it upon themselves to figure out how to extrapolate the ethics of any of these professions from a typical (introductory or high-level) philosophy course in ethics.

Second, while the mission of professional schools is to prepare liberal arts graduates to become responsible members of their professions, it does not follow that professional schools should be the exclusive province of such teaching and research.  To wait until graduate school to teach professional ethics overlooks the fact that all educated individuals—not only professionals—stand to benefit, both intellectually and practically speaking, from creatively understanding the ethical role and responsibility of professionals in society. We all are profoundly affected as individuals and societies by the complex interconnections, for example, between medicine, business, and law, on the one hand, and ethics, economics, and politics, on the other.  

Although the separation of liberal arts from the subject of professional roles and responsibilities may be taken for granted because it is so conventional, it actually should strike us as strange, on both intellectual and educational grounds, that so few courses in the undergraduate curricula of eminent universities relate the liberal arts to professional life. It is both an intellectual and a practical puzzle to be solved.

In The Marketplace of Ideas, Louis Menand addresses this puzzle and offers the most powerful explanation of how and why this separation occurred in American higher education. The separation was driven by three factors: the historical evolution of American higher education, a powerful advocate in late 19 th century higher education, and a mutually convenient (rather than educationally compelling) division of labor between liberal arts and professional educators.[17]

The historical account takes us back to a time in the United States when a liberal arts education was an exclusive domain of the American elite, who looked down upon all practically oriented education. Practically oriented professional education grew up, separately, alongside liberal-arts education in the United States. Not until the late 19 th century did a liberal-arts degree become the gateway to the professions. In 1868, for example:

"Only 19 of the 411 medical students at the University of Michigan, and none of the 387 law students there, had prior degrees of any kind. There were no admissions requirements at Harvard Law School, beyond evidence of 'good character' and the ability to pay the hundred dollars tuition, which went into the pockets of the law professors. There were no grades or exams..."[18]

In 1869, when Charles Eliot began his 40-year stint as Harvard's president, he brought "one original and revolutionary idea with him... to make the bachelor's degree a prerequisite for admission to professional school."  Eliot's idea to make a liberal arts education the exclusive gateway to the professions was a "key element in the transformation of American higher education in the decades after the Civil War."[19] It had two long-term effects. The first was to "put universities in the exclusive business of credentialing professionals."[20] The second was to enable liberal arts colleges to preserve their "anti-utilitarian ethos in an increasingly secular and utilitarian age."[21] "The practical spirit and the literary or scholastic spirit are both good, but they are incompatible," Eliot argued. Moreover: "If commingled, they are both spoiled."[22]

This stark separation of the practical and theoretical was neither an inevitable outgrowth of earlier educational efforts, nor has it ever been universally accepted. In fact, it flew in the face of at least one early American effort to integrate the liberal arts and professional education. In his educational blueprint ("Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania"), which later led to the founding of the University of Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin called for students to be taught "every Thing that is useful, and every Thing that is ornamental." Being a principled pragmatist, Franklin immediately addressed an obvious rejoinder, that no educational institution can teach everything. And so he continued: "But Art is long, and their Time is short. It is therefore propos'd that they learn those Things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental."[23]

Franklin's admirable efforts at integration notwithstanding, the dominant historical development of liberal arts and professional education in the U.S. followed Eliot's separatist philosophy—"utility … everywhere in the professional schools but nowhere in the colleges"—that his unrivalled reign as Harvard's president enabled him to institutionalize.[24] Liberal arts education, Eliot insisted, without any qualification or scintilla of doubt, must be "the enthusiastic study of subjects for the love of them without any ulterior objects, the love of learning and research for their own sake…."[25]

Even if we set aside doubts about a liberal arts philosophy that opposes any practical purpose for learning, we need to recognize that learning solely for its own sake leaves the educational content of the liberal arts vastly underdetermined. To guide the widely instituted elective system, there was only a motivational rationale (learning for its own sake), not any substantive rationale to determine content (except that which is not useful). To anyone so crass as to ask for a practical rationale for liberal learning, Eliot could say that: "[Y]ou will learn what you really need to know in graduate school."[26] That which was unsaid (perhaps because it would undermine the assumed motivation of learning solely for its own sake) but undoubtedly understood, was that if you do well during your four years of liberal learning, you will succeed in getting into the professional school of your choice, and live a more privileged life than if you tried to short-circuit a liberal arts education. 

As the separation between liberal arts and professional education unfolded over time, the liberal arts—not surprisingly—turned out to be less pure in practice than Eliot's separatist dictum prescribed. For example, professional schools declared some undergraduate courses—such as organic chemistry—as prerequisites, which immediately imparted to these courses an intended practical purpose. But the general aversion to practical subjects, and the suspicion of practical motivations for learning, already had been deeply implanted in liberal arts culture, with the consequence of making every "impure" part of the liberal arts curriculum seem polluted for being "pre-professional." Often such prerequisite courses are considered less admirable because students are assumed to be taking them for an instrumental reason.

In addition, the unfolding of the liberal arts curriculum charged undergraduates with choosing a major out of intellectual passion, not for a practical or professional purpose, lest the liberal arts spirit of learning for its own sake be spoiled by practical, professional purposes. Like prerequisite courses, those majors that became natural feeders to professional schools—economics to business school, political science to law, biology to medical school—also were expected to defend their reputations against becoming pre-professional. Pre-med students majoring in biology, pre-law students in political science, or pre-business in economics were suspected of having less worthy motivations for their studies than the classics, math, or physics major.

Despite these concerns regarding the separation between liberal arts and professional education, we still can recognize that something educationally significant is lost if students choose their majors for purely professional reasons, rather than because they want to be both well educated and well prepared for a likely future career.  The introduction of distribution requirements for all majors is one way of responding to this potential problem.

An equally powerful response is for liberal arts educators to acknowledge that few people are so economically privileged that they can afford to be motivated solely by the love of learning for its own sake. As undergraduates, most students need to prepare for gainful and socially productive employment, and there is not a scintilla of shame in choosing a major because it helps to prepare you for a profession, if you also are genuinely interested in broadly pursuing what the subject matter has to offer. Setting saints aside, most people have mixed motivations in pursuing the significant goals in their life.

That the liberal arts not succumb to encouraging an exclusively professional motivation for undergraduate education is a noble concern. Part of the glory of American liberal arts education is its enabling undergraduates to keep their intellectual sights and their career options open, while cultivating intellectual curiosity and creativity that will enhance any of the career paths they later choose to follow. Courses and majors are typically designed so that they are compatible with many career paths, and spark the intellectual creativity of students rather than narrow their imaginations. These are among the most eminently defensible aims of a liberal arts education: to broaden rather than narrow the sights of undergraduates, and to strengthen rather than stifle their creative potential. But both of these aims admit intellectually creative, pre-professional education. Both aims, for example, would argue in favor of including courses in the undergraduate curriculum on the social role and responsibility of the professions.

For some of the same reasons that we should staunchly defend the liberal arts against becoming narrowly pre-professional, we also should oppose a rigid separation (a la Eliot) of the "scholastic" and the "practical" spirit. Separating the two spirits is a means of stifling rather than stoking creative understanding, since so much that provokes our creative understanding straddles the worlds of theory and practice, and the professions are a large part of both worlds. The insights that the liberal arts can offer to the professions are also great: as is the creative challenge of integrating these insights into professional practice.

The professed ideal keeping the liberal arts separate from pre-professional education also smacks of self-deception. As Menand points out, liberal arts majors are actually pre-professional for one small segment of the undergraduate population: future professors, although only a tiny minority of undergraduates ever will enter the professoriate.

The separation between the liberal arts and professional education—along with its departmental divisions—has endured not only (or even primarily) because of Eliot's influential philosophy, but also because the separation has become institutionally useful for some significant purposes. It enables universities to organize departments (roughly) around academic disciplines, which is a useful way to educate graduate students and to recruit faculty members. It helps faculty members in a broad discipline or subject matter organize courses that introduce students to the range of knowledge and methods needed to develop an in-depth understanding.

However, this rationale does not in itself justify the continued maintenance of a rigid and impermeable wall between the liberal arts and understanding the role and responsibility of professions.  The mistake is multiplied because the institutional separation of the liberal arts and professional education has created something akin to "an allergy to the term 'vocational.'"[27] And anything that concerns any profession other than academia itself is considered "vocational." The separation also has engendered among many defenders of the liberal arts a quasi-instinctual opposition to any undergraduate "curriculum designed with real-world goals in mind."[28] All of applied ethics, therefore, not only professional ethics, may be tainted for being too practical (not sufficiently theoretical) in its aims.

These aversions need to be exposed as indefensible. A liberal arts education is vocational in a broad sense and liberal arts educators justifiably have real world goals in mind. At its best, a liberal arts education prepares undergraduates for success in whatever profession they choose to pursue, and it does so by virtue of teaching them to think creatively and critically about themselves, their society, and the world.

One good reason to emphasize the importance of the love of learning for its own sake is that these real-world goals cannot always be best achieved by direct aim. Sometimes it is more effective to teach students to love knowledge for its own sake in order to stretch both their imaginations and their time horizons, so they do not expect that what they learn will quickly "pay off."

Yet the love of learning for its own sake cannot and should not be the exclusive aim of a liberal arts education. It cannot be the exclusive aim because it is impossible to distinguish between the love of learning for its own sake and for the sake of making a positive difference in the world. It should not be the exclusive aim because it is not always more effective in producing creative thinking to teach students by indirection. The practical point of a liberal arts education—understanding how best to tackle complex and important (empirical and ethical) problems—can effectively pique creative thinking, along with the love of learning.

By integrating the liberal arts with a deeper and broader understanding of the professions, universities would better prepare students for facing up to the challenges of their private, professional, and civic lives. Conversely, universities are letting their students and society down to the extent that they leave the complex connections between the liberal arts and professions to be made later in life – or not at all.

Far more productive than our lamenting the tendency of undergraduates to flock toward "pre-professional" majors, universities can enrich the education of all undergraduates—regardless of their major—by applying the empirical and ethical insights of the liberal arts to enable all students to better understand the role and responsibility of the professions.

The time certainly has come to break down the rigid divide between the liberal arts and the professions. Bridging this divide would be as revolutionary today as creating the divide was in Eliot's time, and similarly important.

To the extent that 21 st century universities recognize this divide as an institutional convenience (or inconvenience) rather than as an intellectual asset, we can build more productive intellectual bridges between liberal arts and professional education. We can show how insights of history, philosophy, literature, politics, economics, sociology, and science enrich understandings of law, business, medicine, nursing, engineering, architecture, and education—and how professional understandings in turn can enrich the insights of liberal arts disciplines. We can demonstrate, both theoretically and practically speaking, that understanding the role and responsibilities of professions in society is an important part of the higher education of democratic citizens.

This leads naturally to the third aim of a university education: maximizing the social contribution of universities based on our core competencies. One of our core competencies is the ability of a liberal arts education to cultivate creative understanding, which in turn enables educated individuals to make key contributions to society.

In the 21 st century, the unprecedented social power of knowledge-driven professions makes cultivating the creative understanding of professionals key to universities' contributing to society based on their core intellectual competencies. Universities are engines of both individual empowerment and social progress. The very same creative understanding that empowers individuals to lead productive lives as citizens and professionals also generates social progress.

To avoid any complacency about the university's mission of undergraduate education that would stifle social progress, I have focused on an increasingly important but often neglected way in which the liberal arts can maximize its social contribution: by broadening its reach to better comprehend the role and responsibility of the professions for talented students from all walks of life. Because the professions profoundly affect the lives of all citizens, teaching students about their social role and responsibility should not begin at the professional school level. For the many undergraduates who plan to become professionals, it is equally important to introduce them early to this subject in a learning context where not only fellow professionals are part of the educational dialogue.

There are many other ways in which liberal arts universities can contribute to society by cultivating creative understanding. For example, we also can contribute to society by modeling ethical responsibility and social service in our institutional practices and initiatives. Our capital investments in educational facilities can and should contribute to the economic progress of our local communities. Universities can and should be institutional models of environmental sustainability in the way we build and maintain our campuses.

Yet by far the most important social contribution of universities in the realm of undergraduate liberal arts education depends on the progress we make in increasing opportunity for students and cultivating their creative understandings. While I have focused here on the importance of the liberal arts' embracing the role and responsibility of the professions, I would be remiss not to note that the most important contributions of universities to society—in the realms of faculty research and clinical service, for example—similarly depend on better integrating insights across the liberal arts and the professions.

At the University of Pennsylvania, with thanks to Franklin our founder, there is far-ranging receptivity to bridging intellectual and institutional divides that have separated liberal arts and professional education for several centuries. It is increasingly evident how much creative understanding there is to be gained, and how little of intellectual importance to be lost, by our embracing the integration rather than the segregation of knowledge.

To return to the question with which we began: What makes an undergraduate education worthwhile? An education that cultivates creative understanding enables diverse, talented, hardworking graduates to pursue productive careers, to enjoy the pleasures of lifelong learning, and to reap the satisfactions of creatively contributing to society. The corresponding institutional mission of universities is to increase opportunity, to cultivate creative understanding, and—by these and other important means such as innovative research and clinical service—to contribute to society. At their best, liberal arts universities recruit hardworking, talented, and diverse student bodies and help them develop the understandings—including the role and responsibility of the professions in society—that are needed to address complex social challenges in the 21 st century. To the extent that liberal arts universities do this and do it well, we can confidently say to our students and our society that a university education is a wise investment indeed.


[1] http://www.pimco.com/EN/Insights/Pages/School-Daze-School-Daze-Good-Old-Golden-Rule-Days.aspx (retrieved Sept. 20, 2011). Questioning the value of a college degree is nothing new. In Pudd'nhead Wilson, Mark Twain quipped that: "cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education. Mark Twain.  The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson.  Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1894, p. 67.

[2] See press release at: http://www.thielfellowship.org/news/tf-press-releases/ (retrieved Jan. 3, 2012)

[3] See, for example, Greg Ip, "The Declining Value of Your College Degree," The Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2008, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121623686919059307.html (retrieved Sept. 21, 2011). 
Louis Menand, "Live and Learn: Why We Have College," The New Yorker, June 6, 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2011/06/06/110606crat_atlarge_menand (retrieved Sept. 21, 2011). 
Daniel Indiviglio, "The Importance of College: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy," The Atlantic, June 27, 2011 http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/06/the-importance-of-college-a-self-fulfilling-prophecy/241092/ (retrieved Sept. 21, 2011). 
Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, "College: Expensive, but a Smart Choice," Los Angeles Times, August 15, 2011. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/aug/15/opinion/la-oe-looney-greenstone-is-college-wo20110815 (Retrieved Sept. 21, 2011)

[4]  See, for example, Sandy Baum, Jennifer Ma, and Kathleen Payea, "Education Pays 2010: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society," College Board Advocacy & Policy Center: 2010. 
Anthony P. Carnevale, Jeff Strohl, and Michelle Melton, "What's It Worth: The Economic Value of College Majors," Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce: 2011. 
Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, "College: Expensive, but a Smart Choice," Los Angeles Times, August 15, 2011. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/aug/15/opinion/la-oe-looney-greenstone-is-college-wo20110815   (Retrieved Sept. 21, 2011.) 
Kevin Carey, "Bad Job Market: Why the Media is Always Wrong About the Value of a College Degree," The New Republic blog, http://www.tnr.com/article/economy/89675/bad-job-market-media-wrong-college-degree?id=c3tDkrWcVzH3jltcgTA2oTDTydf5y5q6/J8/xDMU1/53nKY+kSwzHmksnbcDeVk/ (Retrieved Sept. 20, 2011)

[5] H.L. Mencken.  A Mencken Chrestomathy.  New York: A. A. Knopf, 1949.  Pg. 443.

[6]  Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, "College: Expensive, but a Smart Choice," Los Angeles Times, August 15, 2011.  http://articles.latimes.com/2011/aug/15/opinion/la-oe-looney-greenstone-is-college-wo20110815 (Retrieved Sept. 21, 2011)

[7]  Ibid.

[8]  Ibid.

[9]  Original citation from Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is important to note that a report issued by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University on August 15, 2012 (http://www9.georgetown.edu/grad/gppi/hpi/cew/pdfs/CollegeAdvantage.FullReport.081512.pdf ) found the unemployment rate for newly minted college graduates is higher than for college graduates more generally, but significantly less than the unemployment rate for recent high school graduates. The difference is quite staggering: 6.8 percent for recent college graduates compared to a Great Depression-comparable 24 percent for recent high school graduates. And the difference is sustained even in industries thought typically immune to the allure of a college diploma: in construction, employment dropped by only 4 percent for workers with bachelor's degree or better, but by 24 percent for those with high school diplomas or less. The report also suggests that the related problem of underemployment is much more severe among the less-educated, with an estimated rate of 8.4 percent for new college graduates and double that—17.3 percent—for new high school graduates.

[10] We also know that the economic returns of some majors, such as English and education, are far smaller than those of others, such as economics and engineering. But even with these qualifications, individuals still stand to gain—both economically and non-economically speaking—from graduating college.  For example, see Anthony P. Carnevale, Jeff Strohl, and Michelle Melton, "What's It Worth: The Economic Value of College Majors," Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce: 2011.

[11] See, for example, Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Shapiro, "Does Student Aid Affect College Enrollment?  New Evidence on a Persistent Controversy." American Economic Review 81:1 (1991), pp. 309-318.
Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Shapiro, "The Student Finance System for Undergraduate Education: How Well Does it Work?" Change 23:3 (1991), pp. 16-22.
Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Shapiro, "Financing Undergraduate Education: Designing National Policies," National Center for Postsecondary Improvement: 1997. 
Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Shapiro, eds.  "College Access: Opportunity or Privilege?"  New York: The College Board, 2006.

[12] According to a 2008 report published by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (and funded by Bill and Melinda Gates and Lumina Foundations), 91 percent of high school students from families making over $100,000 a year enroll in college. The enrollment rate for students from middle-class families—those earning between $50,000 and $100,000 a year—is 78 percent.  And for students from families in the lowest income bracket, $20,000 and below, the rate is 52 percent. "Measuring Up 2008, " National and State Report Cards on Higher Education, National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

[13] National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, "Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education."  http://measuringup2008.highereducation.org/ (Retrieved Sept. 21, 2011)

[14] Penn was able to implement and sustain a need-blind, need-based, and no-loan financial aid program despite having an endowment that ranks 57 th in size per capita in recent data provided by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO).  One possible lesson is that other universities – with proportionally more resources – can also increase aid for low- and middle-income students, if they make need-based financial aid one of their highest institutional priorities.

[15] Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, "Moral Science: Protecting Participants in Human Subjects Research." http://www.bioethics.gov/cms/node/558 (Retrieved Jan. 9, 2012)

[16] The Bioethics Commission is developing a study guide to its earlier report (entitled Ethically Impossible) that details grotesque human rights abuses by American researchers who conducted experiments sponsored by the United States government in Guatemala from 1946-48.

[17] Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, New York: Norton, 2010.

[18]  "…To get an MD at Harvard, students were obliged to take a ninety-minute oral examination, during which nine students rotated among nine professors, …spending ten minutes with each….Any student who passed five of the nine fields became a doctor." Ibid., p. 46.

[19] Ibid., p. 45.

[20] Ibid., p. 47.

[21] Ibid., p. 49.

[22] Charles Elliot, "The New Education, I."  The Atlantic Monthly, 23:136 (February 1869), p. 215.

[23] Benjamin Franklin, "Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania, Philadelphia, 1749."  http://www.archives.upenn.edu/primdocs/1749proposals.html (retrieved Sept. 21, 2011).

[24] Menand, Ibid, p. 49.

[25] Elliot, Ibid, p. 214. See also Hugh Hawkins, Between Harvard and America: The Educational Leadership of Charles W. Eliot, New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. 

[26] Menand, Ibid., p. 49. Emphasis added.

[27] Ibid, p. 53.

[28] Ibid., p. 50.